A near-fatal accident, however, induces him to merrily chuck it all — he's so nice the family can't help wishing him well — and live life to the fullest by moving from Georgia to South Beach and becoming a "big fag." He soon discovers that "being gay is really expensive," or at least his chosen A-lister lifestyle is. Having been schooled by his adoption trauma, Steve figures if everything you think you know can so easily turn out to be a lie, why not becoming a fibbing superstar? He begins diverting funds from his corporate employer, amazed at what a chief financial officer position and a golf-playing, polo-shirt-wearing front can get away with. At least to a point — the point that commences several ensuing revolving-door years of cons, captures, prison stints, and ingenious escapes.
It is during one hoosegow stay that he meets the non-tobacco-related Phillip Morris (McGregor), a sweet Southern sissy who got there by sheer haplessness rather than criminal guile. Steven is an ardent, protective lover — if he's also slippery as an eel, that's at least partly because he thinks his lies protect those he loves — and Phillip is a slavishly adoring 1950s housewife who just happens to have been born with a penis.
Like The Informant!, Phillip Morris fudges the facts a bit for narrative convenience and strains at times for an antic tone that makes life itself a sort of genre parody. In his genius-IQ mind, does Russell see himself as the hero of a perfect if artificial sitcom-type world? Or does casting Carrey require the same sort of hyperreal gloss routinely applied to gimmick-driven vehicles like Yes Man (2008), Bruce Almighty (2003), and Liar Liar (1997), because he bends any context like a funhouse mirror? (Only once, in 1998's The Truman Show, did that context meaningfully amplify his cartoonishness; and only once, in 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has he calmed down to ordinary human proportions.) Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, making their directorial debut after team-writing a bewildering trio of mainstream comedies (2001's Cats and Dogs, 2003's Bad Santa, and 2005's The Bad News Bears), approach their fascinating material with brashness and some skill, but without the control to balance its steep tonal shifts.
Surprisingly, it's in the "love" part that they often succeed best. While their comic aspects sometimes tip into shrill, destabilizing caricature — the excess that brilliant but barely-manageable Carrey will always drift toward unless tightly leashed — this movie's link to Brokeback is that it never makes the love between two men look inherently ridiculous, as nearly all mainstream comedies now do to get a cheap throwaway laugh or three.
Russell's scenes with AIDS-fallen first boyfriend Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro) are very poignant. And the many more with McGregor, who plays white-trash nelly with an uncondescending delicacy that's both amusing and wistful, are quite lovely. There's one scene of them chatting in their prison cell — viewed overhead in bed, Phillip's head in the crook of Steven's arm — that's so affectionately intimate you can see exactly why the movie took two years to get a U.S. release. Even the prior scene of Carrey riding a different man's ass like a bucking bronco isn't as half so threatening as this, an utterly unguarded moment with two famous faces that both happen to be male conveying a perfectly synched love.
I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS opens Fri/3 in San Francisco.