Before his fateful encounter with Phillip, Steven is living in a cloud of confusion. We're treated to a rapid flick through the family album and the hilariously awful moment when he learns that he is adopted. As an adult, he tries to create his own vision of the 'happy family'; a house in the 'burbs, a dutiful wife and a couple of kids. The only glitch is that he likes sex with men. A lot. Writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa) aren't afraid to highlight this in sweaty close-up, but while the humour can be coarse, it is very funny and immediately engages us with Steven's dilemma.
It is the double impact of being rejected by his mother (for a second time) and a serious car crash, that finally prompts Steven to reclaim his life. That means moving to Miami, getting a Latin lover (Rodrigo Santoro) and splashing out on fabulous clothes, cars and spa sessions. In fact, being gay is so expensive, Russell turns to fraud just to 'stay true to himself'. It's a dryly amusing - albeit dizzying - series of events that land him in jail where he forms an instant bond with Phillip Morris. It's an intrepid turn by McGregor though his character is actually very shy and retiring.
Russell has an instant desire to protect Phillip and the ensuing love affair is both funny and tender. Their slow dance in a jail cell, whilst the other inmates jeer, is hard to forget. Alas, the course of true love never does run smooth and, in this case, Steven is granted his freedom only to try and break back into jail again. It's a great premise and Carrey isn't afraid to go all the way for laughs. He is gloriously unabashed in a role that requires him to be very abrasive at times. Still, he manages to convey the softer side of a disturbed individual. This is as much the portrait of a tragic hero as a comedy and the filmmakers are always sensitive to that. The gags are never cruel.
Carrey is definitely the star of the film, but McGregor remains the emotional anchor. He channels all of the frustration, exasperation and sympathy that moviegoers will feel as they watch Steven gripped in fits of mania, and he doesn't overplay the femininity. In fact, it's Phillip's evolution from quivering love object to a wilful man (telling Steven how it is) that really gives the story it's backbone. When he isn't on screen, Steven's erratic behaviour makes the viewing experience somewhat uncomfortable. In the final stages, that unevenness becomes more pronounced; the tone more tragic than comic. However, it's a credit to the writing of Ficarra and Requa that they manage to pull it back for a fitting climax. A comedy with balls!
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