By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated December 13, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST
Patti Perret

I Love You Phillip Morris tells a tale too bizarre to qualify as believable fiction. No problem: It’s a true story — a freak opportunity perfectly alluring to writer-directors Glenn Ficara and John Requa, the oddball-loving gents who wrote Bad Santa. There really is a Phillip Morris (not related to the tobacco company). He’s a mild fellow, here played with a melting, trusting smile by Ewan McGregor. Morris was serving prison time (stemming from an arrest for an overdue rental car) when he had the cataclysmic (mis?)fortune to fall in love with Steven Russell, here played by Jim Carrey in a boundary-busting performance of spectacular commitment and delicacy.

Russell was in jail at the time for insurance fraud. But ”fraud” doesn’t begin to describe the creative audacity with which the fellow conned his way through life, especially after he met Morris. (These days Russell is serving a 144-year sentence in a maximum-security facility in Texas.) And ”conned” doesn’t do justice to the devotion that propelled so many of Russell’s ingenious illegal schemes so that he could live with his beau in luxurious style outside prison walls.

I Love You Phillip Morris pulls off ingenious schemes of its own: It dramatizes a highly unusual relationship — that’s an understatement — between two men in which homosexual love and sex, ardently enacted on screen in a finely tuned tour-de-force interplay between two movie stars, is just another piece of the story. And it sustains a tone of compassionate hilarity in which oversize romantic gestures coexist with gigantic scams. A film featuring lesser-known actors might have made for a ”realer” production. But who’s kiddin’ whom? It’s the beaming movie-star intensity of the complicated comic Carrey in the role of the dominant lover and Obi-Wan Kenobi McGregor as the gentle beloved that makes this unfettered, stranger-than-fiction picture pop. A-