I Love You, Phillip Morris

Jim Carrey is a fraudster who falls for Ewan McGregor in a Texas jail. Peter Bradshaw enjoys an intriguing, offbeat comedy

Jim Carrey's rubbery, hyperreal face achieves a sheen of panic and desperate neediness in this stranger-than-fiction comedy drawn from real life. Steven Russell (Carrey) is a fraudster, a hypnotically plausible fantasist, and a formerly married ex-cop who comes out as a gay man, before finally getting sent to jail in Texas for insurance scams, and there finding the love of his life. This is the shy, young innocent Phillip Morris, nicely played by Ewan McGregor, who, like the rest of the world, trusts the exuberant and charming Steven implicitly. Morris himself tells his own story in a seductive, honeyed voiceover, rather like Reese Witherspoon's narration in Alexander Payne's Election.

Electrified by his new romance, Steven redoubles his fanatical determination to trick and manipulate the world around him to get what he believes he wants: Phillip. When his own prison term ends, Steven poses as a lawyer to get Phillip released on licence – forging documents, faking voices on the phone, and maintaining a series of inspired bluffs – and then constructs a massive, fraudulent career in both law and finance so that they can live together in luxury as a super-rich gay couple. But it isn't long before the police close in, and Steven has to demonstrate his almost superhuman talents for evading the law: shabby deceptions theoretically consecrated to his love for his beloved Phillip, who hasn't grasped how he has been made complicit and co-dependent in Steven's delusional career of lies.

This movie, from writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa – who wrote the Billy Bob Thornton comedy Bad Santa – is intriguing, at least partly because it is not immediately clear what it is centrally about. Steven's own lifelong identity crisis, which may stem from the traumatic discovery of having been adopted, has a parallel in the film. Is it about gay romance? Is it about a con man's criminal career? Are we, the audience, supposed to trust Steven Russell, to take him at his own estimation of himself?

Not exactly, no. Even calling him a fraudster doesn't describe the character Carrey plays. His compulsive lying is an addictive habit like kleptomania; it forces him to live in a growing web of relationships based on bad faith, from which more scams will be needed to escape. Like many liars, Steven has developed a lovably roguish personality as a cover for when he gets caught and has to admit guilt, and as a face-saving device to allow his dupes to grimace and pretend they sort of suspected as much. Steven is not a con man in the sense of a cool, rational grifter who knows exactly what he is doing and why. He is in the grip of a compulsion, which distracts him from a batsqueak of terror that he doesn't know what or who he is. Steven seizes messianically on his gay identity and his gay love for Phillip Morris. The title of the film is a kind of personal mission statement. But to the very end, this grand passion may not entirely explain his behaviour.

Steven's soon-to-be-ex-wife Debbie, played by Leslie Mann, asks a doctor if Steven's "gay thing and the stealing" are part of the same disorder. Steven's then-boyfriend Jimmy, played by Rodrigo Santoro, is disgusted by this homophobic remark. And yet Debbie, in her blundering way, has come close to something. It is not Steven's gayness that is of a piece with his stealing, but his pretending to be straight, and then pretending that his embrace of a gay identity is the solution to all his personal problems. What counts is the deception, and the way it melts into self-deception.

With its chequered and meandering story-path, I Love You Phillip Morris reminded me surreally of serial killer films like David Fincher's Zodiac, Cédric Kahn's Roberto Succo and Shohei Imamura's Vengeance Is Mine – about criminals whose modus operandi and repetitive patterns of behaviour look like a rationally pursued criminal "career" – but it is a career that could digress or disappear at any moment.

Carrey and McGregor certainly succeed in making it all funny. Carrey's anti-hero is, after all, a very clever man, who gets away with a lot of stuff because of a genuine mental ability, which he unfortunately supplements with lies. (There's a nice montage sequence in which Steven tells a "lawyer" joke at the office, and then overhears dozens of people retelling that same joke badly, revealing their various crass prejudices.)

And there is something funny and touching about this anarchic, abortive love affair, a chaotically doomed relationship that neither of the principals understand, and it is the very muddled and messy quality of this relationship that announces that it is drawn from real life. Steven's bluffs and blags are arguably just a crazily magnified version of the fake-it-till-you-make-it routine that many entirely honest people find themselves needing to use. Poor Steven does see himself as basically one of these decent, honest types. "Sometimes you've got to shave a little off the puzzle-piece to make it fit," he muses. The puzzle fits together very entertainingly here.

abortive : nieudany

blag : napad rabunkowy

blundering : pomylony, chwiejny

chequered : zmienny, burzliwy

complicit : wspólnik, współwinny

compulsion : przymus; nałóg

compulsive : kompulsywny, nałogowy, niekontrolowany

consecrate : poświęcać

crass : prymitywny, głupi

deception : oszukiwanie

evade : unikać, uchodzić (czemuś)

fake : podrabiać, fałszować

forge : podrabiać, fałszować

fraudster : oszust, osoba wyłudzająca pieniądze

fraudulent : oszukańczy

get away with : uchodzić z czymś; unikać odpowiedzialności za coś

grifter : oszust żyjący z przekrętów, osoba czerpiąca zyski z nieuczciwych transakcji

implicitly : bezwarunkowo

inspired : natchniony, pełen polotu, trafny

meandering : zawiły

messianically : mesjanistycznie

modus operandi : sposób działania

muddled : zagmatwany

muse : dumać, zastanawiać się

plausible : prawdopodobny, możliwy

roguish : łotrowski

rubbery : gumowy, jak z gumy

scam : przekręt

seductive : uwodzicielski

seize on : podchwycić

shabby : nędzny

sheen : blask

stem from : wynikać z

straight : tu: heteroseksualny

voiceover : głos zza kadru

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