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12/10/2010

Carrey's frantic love call for 'Phillip Mor-ris'

Jim Carrey has been waiting a very long time to make a dagger of a movie like "I Love You Phillip Morris."

This outrageous tale -- based on actual events, by the way -- about a family man turned con man turned gay con man desperately trying to impress his soul mate, but having to continually bust out of jail to do it, is not a drama as such.

It's a black hole dark comedy congealed with drama.  In this case, that's an odd dynamic perfectly suited to Carrey's charismatic charm and fits of wild abandon.

If you're wondering just how dark the comic elements might be, know this.  "I Love You Phillip Morris," based on former Houston Chronicle investigative reporter Steve McVicker's book, is co-written and co-directed by writing partners Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
Can't quite place the names?  Ficarra and Requa are the screenwriters who fed Billy Bob Thornton's outstanding way-down and way-dirty performance in "Bad Santa" (2003).

"Phillip Morris" sneaks up on you.  When we first meet Steven Russell (Carrey), he's a seemingly happy family man playing organ for the church choir in Virginia and working as a police officer.

Never quite getting over the fact that his mother gave him up for adoption, Steven bends the rules, using his law enforcement computer to track down his birth mother.  The meeting doesn't go well, and "I Love You Phillip Morris" launches into a tale of self-discovery about living a lie (he's gay) and learning that his outgoing nature may be more suited to a career as a con man than a cop in uniform.

One of the things I like best about this raw embracing of a person's inner (and long-hidden) drives is that the co-directors (in their initial feature film effort) and Carrey flamboyantly keep the tone pedal to the metal.

Maybe it's because I've seen Carrey not reach his full potential in films like "The Number 23" (2007) and "The Majestic" (2001) that I celebrate (perhaps along with him) for gathering up his comic charisma, his likable on-screen nature and his yearning for dramatic effect and rolling it into an improbably charming cinematic snowball.
While refreshing, this is one snowball that hits us in the gut and leaves a mark.

Set primarily in Texas (but shot in Louisiana), "Phillip Morris" chugs along at a brisk pace.  Steven meets Mr. Right (Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris) in jail, then goes more than a little nuts busting out of confinement on several occasions to be with the man he loves.

Leslie Mann, who shared the screen with Carrey in  "The Cable Guy" (1996), brings proper charm and dismay to Debbie, the wife left not for another woman but for a man.  Any man, in fact, at least in the early going.

McGregor scored his own acting triumph this year in "The Ghost Writer." He tones everything down to play Phillip, who, in the long run, becomes as perplexed about Steven as his former wife did.

"I Love You Phillip Morris" will likely blindside you with real, growing sentiment near the end.  Not the fake kind, either, like in "The Majestic," a failed barely disguised remake of "It's a Wonderful Life."

I'm talking the real thing; convincing dramatic acting from a gifted comic who has always wanted to move his audience without a scrunched-up face or a pratfall.

I love you, "Phillip Morris," for finally giving Jim Carrey that chance.

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