When you’re looking for a movie about the die-hard love that simply can’t be found in the obvious (and near un-watchable) likes of Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day, you may want to consider Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s 2009 film, I Love You Phillip Morris. Based on the true story of lifelong prisoner Steven Jay Russell (Jim Carrey), the story begins with Steven narrating to us from his supposed deathbed as he gradually lays out all the events leading up to his meeting with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). And no, no one seems to think much of him having the same name as the tobacco company Philip Morris.
From the moment Steven sets his eyes on Phillip from across the prison cafeteria, he is determined to do everything necessary to give him a happy life. This is after his alternate life as a police officer in Virginia Beach married to his Christian wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann), who has one daughter with him. He later confesses to us that the only reason he became a cop was to find information on who his biological mother is. That’s the thing about Steven–he tells you things in pieces and at moments long after the fact. When his real mother rejects him, Steven and Debbie move to Texas where the former secures a job at Sysco. He seems happy enough as he performs little acts of insurance fraud, but after a near fatal car crash, Steven decides it’s finally time to be who he really is: “a fag.” He uproots his life to Miami where he meets a lover with a taste for the finer things, Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro). In fact, as Steven points out, “Being gay is really expensive.” This is mostly how he rationalizes his upsurge in scams and fraud in order to give himself and Jimmy everything they deserve. But, of course, his actions return to haunt him when the law comes knocking on his proverbial door. Before they catch him, however, he tries to jump off a roof and into a giant trash bin–only to very narrowly miss the mark.
On the plus side, it is this jaunt in prison that leads him to Phillip. Steven catches Phillip’s interest by insisting he can help his friend dying of AIDS in the infirmary get help beyond the prison walls with Steven’s background as a civil liberties lawyer (which, yes, is a lie). Accordingly, Phillip is instantly taken in by Steven’s charming ways. He even admits that the reason he’s in jail is for theft of services–a nondescript way of saying “a crime which is committed when a person obtains valuable services by deception, force, threat or other unlawful means, i.e., without lawfully compensating the provider for these services.” Steven, too, confesses to being in the clink for insurance fraud. Together, the two make prison look like a romantic honeymoon, especially after Steven manages to get himself transferred into the same cell as Phillip. But when Steven is abruptly moved to another prison, he must endure a three-month separation from Phillip before he can use his faux lawyer skills to get his love out early (naturally through means of falsification).
Now that the two are both released into the world of freedom, Steven takes it upon himself to bestow his lover with even more luxuries than he did Jimmy. To do this, he finagles a job as a CFO for a medical insurance company by leading all the reference calls back to him. Within a six-month period, Steven manages to embezzle $800,000 to finance their style of living. Horrified to learn that Steven has been lying to him the entire time, Phillip up and leaves just as Steven comes to get him before the police roll up. Determined to get Phillip back, Steven develops an inveterate escaping habit, finding all manner of ways to eke through prison security in order to be with Phillip. In one particularly elaborate scheme, he even feigns dying of AIDS just to be able to see Phillip again. If that’s not undying (literally) devotion, then what is? As the real Steven Russell said in an interview with The Guardian at the time of the film’s release, “This is a love story. It’s about what a person will do, who is in love, who can’t see the forest for the trees.” And isn’t that what Valentine’s Day is supposed to remind us of? So whether you’re single or hopelessly attached, give I Love You Phillip Morris a chance on February 14th.