December 9, 2010 at 3:54 pm EDT | by David J. Hoffman
The things we do for love

Ewan MacGregor, left, and Jim Carrey in 'I Love You Phillip Morris,' which opens Friday in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

He did it all for love. But the love is not just gay, it’s cock-eyed and completely over-the-top, what the French call “l’amour fou” — obsessive, compulsive and just plain crazy.

And who better to play such a role — in the new film comedy “I Love You, Phillip Morris” —than rubber-faced clown Jim Carrey?

In this role, Carey — who has specialized mostly in comedy since his debut in “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective” in 1994 and usually portrays driven and darkly disturbing characters like in “The Cable Guy” and “Liar, Liar” — crosses boundaries for a major Hollywood actor to star in a “really gay” gay film. This black comedy, at times utterly whacked out yet based on actual events — opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema in Washington and the Bethesda Row Cinema in Maryland.

Because it’s been called “a movie that’s simply too damned gay” it was evidently treated that way by Hollywood. Made on a relatively modest budget ($13 million) by screenwriters-turned-co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, it was first screened nearly two years ago at Sundance then at Cannes, but later languished on the shelf as one distributor after another decided it was simply too radioactive to risk release.

Repeatedly scratched for regular screening, it endured a prolonged odyssey through several hands and lawsuits until now, when it gets only a small-scale distribution dumped into the middle of the overcrowded holiday cinema season. But it deserves to be seen, for its compelling portrait of an impostor who deceives everyone and often himself in madcap pursuit of true love. A pursuit that is anarchic, assaultive, but often very funny — both in the “ha ha” sense but also in the peculiar sense.

It begins with the plaintive declaration that “this really happened — really,” and it did in fact. The film retells the real-life misadventures of a man named Steven Russell, adapted from the book about Russell by former Houston Chronicle investigative reporter Steven McVicker, “I Love You Phillip Morris: The True Story of Life, Love and Prison Break.”

As the film opens we meet Russell, a uniformed cop, who on the surface is happily married and devoutly Christian. He soon realizes he’s gay, leaves her and starts a new life. But keeping up with the gay Joneses proves expensive which leads him to a life of fraud, one con game after another, anything, he says, “to make a buck.”

That eventually leads him to prison of course, where he meets the person who will become the love of his life, the eponymous Phillip Morris, sweet-tempered, shy and trusting and not merely a little dim-witted, played with come-hither charm by Ewan McGregor, an inmate afraid to go into the yard because, he tells Steven, “I’m blond, blue-eyed and queer.”

With sexual chemistry that may be feigned but looks real enough on-screen, they fall for each other. Steven then commences a series of prison grifts to shower Phillip with gifts, but when he’s finally caught at his misdeeds, as he is being shipped out to another prison, he sees his amour across the yard and shouts out “I love you, Phillip Morris!”

Carrey went on a tomato-soup crash diet for four weeks losing between 30-40 pounds in order to get the right look — he says “I starved myself basically” — for one of the film’s many twists and turns. It’s not too far-fetched to think that Carrey could win an Oscar nod for this anti-hero role. It’s a reminder, in fact, of just how really good he can be when he’s not squeezing his talents to fit a standard Hollywood crowd-pleaser.

His sexual preferences are actually quite secondary in this subversive film that could perhaps become a cult comedy classic. It’s the story of his crazy love itself that fills the screen.

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