By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin December 3, 2010 at 5:30AM
Jim Carrey is a talented man but, like other performers whose gifts are wide-ranging and difficult to pigeonhole, he needs good material and a guiding hand. He has found both in I Love You, Phillip Morris. In fact, I think he gives the best performance of his career in this provocative and unusual film from writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who are best remembered for writing Bad Santa. This movie isn’t likely to win over too many of Carrey’s mainstream-comedy fans, or fundamentalists who don’t heed the R rating, but I think it’s a first-rate piece of work.
Carrey plays a Southerner who marries his churchgoing sweetheart (Leslie Mann), then finally reconciles with the reality that he’s gay. In an effort to support a new, extravagant lifestyle he summons his latent gift—
—for larceny and becomes a skilled con artist. Eventually this lands him in prison, where he falls in love with a fellow inmate named Phillip Morris (played by the always-watchable Ewan McGregor). Their destinies merge, but the road of life has many speed bumps and detours in store.
I have skimmed over the details of plot because I don’t want to give away more than I should. I Love You, Phillip Morris is a film that offers surprises and rewards at every turn—but makes some of those turns, from poignant drama to absurdist comedy, when you least expect them.
McGregor underplays the title character, while Carrey goes to town as a man who assumes many identities over the course of the story. Learning that these characters actually exist, and that Ficarra and Requa based their screenplay on Steve McVicker’s book about their escapades, only makes the film more impressive. One would never suspect that this marks the writing duo’s directing debut. They manage to pull off one of the most difficult tasks in moviemaking: establishing a tone for their picture, then daring to change it, more than once.
I don’t know if anyone is beating the drums for Jim Carrey to be considered for an Academy Award, but I was mightily impressed with his performance here. While there are glimpses of the wacky, physically agile clown we all know, they are absorbed into the character he’s playing, and he handles the serious, heartfelt scenes with equal proficiency. If that isn’t great acting, I don’t know what is.