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By Michael Calleri

Jim Carrey -- Ace Ventura, pet detective, himself -- hasn't had a smash hit movie in years.

"Yes Man" (2008) took in a weak $97 million in the United States and $223 million total worldwide, but those numbers are not what's expected for Carrey, a certified box office champion. In fact, after the gangbusters gross of "Bruce Almighty" (nearly $500 million worldwide), Carrey made a string of lackluster pictures, including the remake of "A Christmas Carol," "The Number 23," "Fun With Dick And Jane," "Lemony Snicket," and "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," a critical success, albeit a surreal drama that was not a big ticket seller. Had he lost his comedic footing?

A few years ago, Carrey made a low-budget ($13 million) film based on a non-fiction book by Steven McVicker. Both movie and book tell the story of a con artist named Steven Russell, a fellow who was a heterosexual, married police officer until he got in touch with his true feelings, accepted his homosexuality, left law enforcement, became a thief, then was arrested and fell completely in love with a gay prison mate, Phillip Morris.

The picture, called "I Love You Phillip Morris," was shown at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 18, 2009 -- note, that's 2009. It was also shown at the Cannes Film Festival that same year. Reaction was intense and positive.

But the feature disappeared, essentially pulled from release. According to people who had seen the movie at the festival showings, Carrey took daring risks in depicting the sexual side of Russell's persona. Ewan McGregor, playing Morris, matched him scene for scene.

Overall, the film was a caper comedy, but it was the gay material that frightened American distributors.

"I Love You Phillip Morris" got a reputation for being too hot for anyone to handle. But eventually, the film became too hot to hold down. It was released in Europe in the spring and summer of 2010, and slowly, good word of mouth built. There were reports that, behind the scenes, Carrey was determined to see his movie shown across the United States.

The buzz was that he had delivered a superior performance, but the fear among management types was that Carrey as a homosexual would send fans of his comedy running for the aisles, especially during one short scene, a strong moment that arrives early and without build-up. It shows Carrey having sex with a man, and it's not a mellow, soft music, amber lighting kind of sex.

Somehow, Carrey got "I Love You Phillip Morris" onto American movie theater screens. This is an Oscar-worthy performance. Carrey mixes the manic brio of some of his comic roles with the riveting intensity he's brought to the dramatic features he's done, especially the biographical film "Man On The Moon," which is about another taking-it-to-the-limit comic, Andy Kaufman. Carrey's Steven Russell never seems to be a man unsure of himself or afraid to take the next risky step. This is a true story, after all, and one wonders how far the real Russell would have gone in law enforcement if he had stayed a cop.

Instead, he chose to walk over the edge, to lie, cheat and steal, and to make a lot of money doing it. His are so-called victimless crimes. He invents a persona (a lawyer, a doctor, a chief financial officer) and succeeds with the kind of ease and daring that doesn't repel an audience, but draws them in. They become complicit in his activities and relish every minute of their time with him. It takes a very good actor to carry this off.

Carrey loves what he's doing, loves Phillip Morris, and loves the audience too. And the audience loves him.

As Morris, McGregor is exceptional. Basically, he's the straight man to Carrey's clown. Well, in this case, the gay straight man, but he underplays terrifically.

A meek little prison mouse, Morris is immediately taken with Russell's bold prison ploys. He's soon smitten, and then enamored with the smooth-taking Texan. Romance comes in the form of a slow dance to Johnny Mathis singing "Chances Are." Phillip deeply loves Steven, but their relationship blinds him to some simple facts about ill-gotten goods.

There are also fine performances from Leslie Mann as Russell's wife, Rodrigo Santoro as his first boyfriend, Antoni Corone as his CEO, Brennan Brown as a financial lawyer, and Michael Mandel as Cleavon, a fellow prisoner who delivers love letters and keeps his word.

Carrey's movie arrives courtesy of the very smart writing-directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. These are the gentlemen responsible for the bold cynicism of "Bad Santa."

They have a real feel for iconoclasts and outsiders. With "I Love You Phillip Morris," they've created a motion picture, rooted in outrageous facts, that in lesser hands might have seemed implausible.

The laughter is character-driven. The rewards are many. There is the fresh sting of satire throughout. Additionally, the picture looks terrific, thanks to Xavier Perez Grobet's crisp cinematography.

Russell's clever scams and prison escapades deeply embarrassed many officials in the state of Texas, not the least of whom was Gov. George W. Bush. Russell broke out of jail so often, you'd think someone would have considered hiring him as a consultant on erecting escape-proof prisons.

His punishment? A jail term that few, if any, of even the most hardened violent offenders have ever received.

"I Love You Phillip Morris" is something alien in recent years, an honest American romantic comedy. And one of the funniest.

E-mail Michael Calleri at michaelcallerimoviesnfr@yahoo.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Jan. 11, 2011