That the equally yearning and hilarious "I Love You Phillip Morris" begins with a kind of plea seems more than apt: "This really happened," the movie says. "It really did."
The suggestion that we might not believe what follows is understandable: A happily married Southern police officer locates the mother who gave him up, is rejected by her again, moves to Texas, has a near-fatal car-crash-cum-epiphany, comes out of the closet, lives a gay lifestyle he can't afford, is imprisoned, falls in love with the felonious Phillip of the title and becomes one of the more prolific con men and repeat prison escapees in the history of American jurisprudence. The filmmakers were right: "Based on a true story" wouldn't have quite cut it.
Despite the title, the thing that's smoking in this stylish, unpredictable film is Jim Carrey's untethered performance as Steven Russell. Carrey is still the elastic man, but he's not as young as he once was, and Steven's late-inning embrace of his homosexuality is always tinged with desperation. He never had a sexy gay youth, and wants one, even if it means credit-card fraud and check kiting. Once he meets Phillip (Ewan McGregor), however, it's all about love, and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa do a terrific job of balancing the sticky sweetness of the Steven-Phillip romance with a story of pure audacity and nervous tension.
The film's sexuality has been toned down since its Sundance Film Festival debut in 2009, but the reasons some will be offended will make others very happy. Carrey and McGregor are utterly fearless, and this adds to the perpetual air of suspense surrounding Steven's holy passion/near-fantastic criminal life.