Review: I Love You Phillip Morris

I Love You Phillip Morris by Steve McVicker

I first encountered the story of Steven Russell while keeping an eye on the distribution of I Love You Phillip Morris, the 2009 film based on this book that wasn’t released Stateside until 2011 for various reasons—mostly, the frank depiction of queer sex acts and the fact that besides being about a gay couple, it wasn’t about being gay. Heaven forbid. In any case, it’s an incredible story, and I wanted to read the book after I saw the movie. (I know, I know, major bibliophilic sin…) And actually? I’d recommend seeing the movie first.

I Love You Phillip Morris is the story of Steven Russell, currently serving one hundred and forty four years in prison for insurance fraud, generally being a con man, and, of course, breaking out of prison four times in increasingly ludicrous ways to be with the man he loves, the titular Phillip Morris. As author Steve McVicker learns over the course of researching this book, Russell is truly one of the most gifted nonviolent criminals of our times—love just makes you do stupid things every once in a while.

I Love You Phillip Morris is a short book at around two hundred and fifty pages. The margins, at least in the hardcover edition I was reading, were enormous! Is this common for the lighter nonfiction? In any case, it’s a swift read. Steve McVicker, although he appears in the beginning and occasionally to explain who he talked to (or, rather, who he didn’t talk to), mostly vanishes from the story, instead simply offering the facts as they are. That’s a mixed blessing. On one hand, because Steve’s main sources are Russell and Morris themselves, you get their sides of the story very clear indeed. On the other, there’s little analysis offered or even style. If you’re reading this, it’s for the story and nothing else. I suppose this comes from McVicker’s background as a journalist rather than a more creative writer, although Lord knows journalism takes a set of skills I don’t have. But in any case, it’s straight-forward and completely unadorned.

Because of this, Russell gets to shine through. He’s an interesting man, to say the least. Initially a closeted family man with issues about being the only child put up for adoption by a woman with four children, Russell eventually came out of the closet and turned to a life of crime—especially when he saw how easy it was. Russell is deeply cunning, and chalks up his success to the fact that he observes. This is a man who broke out of jail with a Magic Marker. His schemes are well thought out, even if he does plan them around Friday the 13th (his lucky day and Morris’ birthday, adorably); the only flaw in the plan is his extravagance and the fact that he’ll always go to Morris, which the increasingly frustrated police twig onto quickly. He’s charming and affable. While McVicker briefly touches on Russell’s reality in his new cell, Russell is still pretty upbeat. I suppose being in solitary for twenty-three hours a day and being forbidden human contact says something flattering about how ingenuous your escape attempts can be. While Russell is ultimately a criminal (albeit nonviolent), the fact that he’s doing all of this for love can’t help but be heartwarming.

McVicker presents the story out of order, jumping around for half the book before settling on Russell’s later crimes that got him locked away for over a century. It’s disorienting, to say the least, and it really removes the punch of some of Russell’s wilder crimes. Here, having seen the film has hurt me—one of Russell’s most audacious crimes is presented so amazingly in the film that it’s really hard to see McVicker gloss over it. I would recommend seeing the film first, just for that. While the nonlinear chronology doesn’t make it difficult to read by any means, it is a little confusing, especially when we look at Russell and Morris’ early lives. (I had a weird moment of vertigo when I realized that I thought that Morris’ early life was Russell’s; that was why I was confused by it, knowing the basic facts of Russell’s upbringing.) But it’s still a interesting story that deserves to be told, even if I do prefer the film’s zaniness over the book’s utilitarian nature.

Bottom line: I Love You Phillip Morris presents the facts of Steven Russell’s incredible career as a criminal without any adornment or analysis. The nonlinear chronology is disorienting, but the story’s worth it—although the film is worth it even more…

I rented this book from the public library.

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