Jim Carrey is unique.
It isn't just that we have no comic actor quite like him in movies either, it's that we never have had anyone remotely like him.
No other Hollywood actor could have done what he does in "I Love You Phillip Morris." But then, it's likely that without Carrey's phenomenal gutsiness as a movie actor, this low-budget movie might not even have been made (that was true of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" too, as its writer Charlie Kaufman has admitted.)
"I Love You Phillip Morris" is based on the very real and incomparably improbable life of con man Steven Jay Russell, a high flier in the flim-flam trade who used his skills at fraud to rocket up the corporate ladder and who, when caught red-handed, was thrown into jail and fell passionately in love with his prison cellmate (played by the redoubtable Ewan McGregor.)
And then plied his natural gifts to become a prison escape artist (at which point it helps to remember that, as outlandish as this tale is, it has its basis in truth.)
Lest you think this gay romance might be proud of itself for having the heart-rending sensitivity of "Brokeback Mountain," forget it. This is a gay romance with the comic raunch left in.
It is written and directed by the guys who wrote "Bad Santa." And thereby hangs a tale. It is no accident that this movie sat on a shelf for two years. In conventional Hollywood non-wisdom, the obvious executive quandary was: How on earth do you sell an indie movie in which the favorite wildman of many mega-budget blockbuster comedies plays a scam-meister hopelessly in love with a guy he met in prison (and played by an established prince of low-budget indie movies)?
So this is not a Jim Carrey film in any conventional sense. Which only means that in the most unconventional sense, though, it is very much a Jim Carrey film.
And that means, yes, it's often wildly funny, but it also means he can do deathbed pathos one second and farce the next. A few minutes later, he'll buck like a bronco as Russell the escapee is shoved into the back seat of a cop car, and then turn into a whispering depressive in a jail cell. And every bit of it is credible.
It's typical of what the most ardent of serious movie fans love so much about Carrey in movies (it's also typical of what some movie audiences find terrifying and off-putting -- about him). It isn't just that he slips so easily out to the extreme perimeters of movie performance, it's that he seems happiest out there. Not long after he arrives, he's calling for room service and arranging for an in-room massage.
And if the guys who wrote some of the raunch in "I Love You Phillip Morris" had their way, the engagement would conclude with what they call "a happy ending" in lingo-appropriate episodes of "Law and Order: SVU."
That, of course, isn't always true. Carrey is no stranger to failure on the outer perimeters ("The Number 23"), but his constant willingness to make radical departures from what audiences have seen before is one of the sustaining virtues of American movies these days.
"I Love You Phillip Morris" is told in voice-over and flies through some very funny and/or bizarre narrative montages.
The basic tale begins with Steven Russell as a cop married to a pious woman but cheating with men, then coming out as a gay man and leaving the force, then becoming a con man, going to jail, falling in love etc., etc.
And, at that point, the tale is only halfway there.
It has a long way to go before the ending, which is splendidly impossible in the way that only a story based on truth could be.
If you look at what Carrey does as a con man here and compare it, say, to Leonardo DiCaprio's earnest flamboyance as a con artist in Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can," you're in another part of the forest entirely. Carrey takes it to the limit.
He's matched, sometimes, by his writer/directors, who do one wonderful montage about how good jokes can change and, through metamorphosis and human narrative ineptitude, turn into very bad ones.
But then, the writers aren't so clever and daring that they pass up a scene where Carrey, pretending to be a business exec to defraud a company, tells his lover that he is going to play golf with the other upwardly mobile execs.
"Golf?" responds his lover. "But you're a homosexual."
When, on the course, it takes him nine strokes to get out of a sandtrap, he swears with extravagant obscenity, just to prove he's one of the boys. Then he apologizes: "Pardon my French. My mother smoked during pregnancy."
That sounds like a sequence from a standard Jim Carrey movie. Believe me, though, the rest does not.
What makes Carrey's performance here so different from, say, DiCaprio's, might have been in the part, or Alec Baldwin's or William H. Macy's is that his history gave him an easy understanding of life on the edges that other actors might not have.
This is a man whose father, the aspiring jazz saxophonist, ran into such dire economic straits at one point that the family had to live out of a camper and work, en famille, as the after-hours cleaners in an office building. He is no child of the comfortable middle class.
In movies at his best, he isn't a force of nature, he's more like a force of anti-nature. He's great in the full knowledge that acting in movies is a decidedly unnatural act.
In both its variety and its subtlety, I think his performance in "I Love You Phillip Morris" may be the best thing he's ever done.
Just don't expect any Oscar nominations. It's out there.
I Love You Phillip Morris
4 stars (out of 4)
Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor and Leslie Mann in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's wild and raunchy avant-comedy about the unlikely crimes and romances of real con man Steven Jay Russell.
Rated R for sex, language and nudity and opening Friday in area theaters.