Review: You Kill Me (2007) *** 1/2

Téa Leoni and Ben Kingsley in You Kill Me (2007)
Téa Leoni and Ben Kingsley in You Kill Me (2007).

They say there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy. If that’s true, then it’s also fair to say that black comedy seeks laughs (as well as truth) by mining the narrow gray area between the two. Perhaps because there is so little room to maneuver here, black comedy can be hard to pull off. Finding the right tone is key and without it, what is supposed to be funny can turn out to be simply depressing. Witness the difference between the supremely funny Bad Santa and the near train wreck Art School Confidential, both from the same director Terry Zwigoff.

You Kill Me, the new film from John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction), joins the ranks of movies that look for humor in the darkest of places. It’s about an alcoholic hit man named Frank Falenczyk who is forced into rehab after his drunkenness causes him to blow an important assignment. This isn’t material that lends itself easily to comedy and tonally the movie gets off to a shaky start. Like a drunk on St. Patrick’s Day, it at first seems like You Kill Me is going to fall flat on its face. Eventually however, it rises unsteadily to its feet and manages to pull off the improbable feat of generating laughs using alcoholism, murder and love as a springboard. It’s a dryly funny movie that could easily be seen as sort of a distant cousin to a movie like Prizzi’s Honor. While it’s not a classic like the John Huston film, it echoes some of the same spirit. 

The film follows Frank as he navigates the self-help community of Alcoholics Anonymous, a foreign land to a man who is not prone to expressing his feelings to strangers nor especially patient with strangers looking to express their feelings to him. The stakes are raised when he takes a temporary job at a mortuary and falls for Laurel, a woman he meets while preparing for the funeral of her stepfather. Laurel has boundary issues and a confessed inability to take no for an answer. The two make an odd couple, but they have a definite chemistry and it’s hard not to root for them and to hope that Frank will find a way to successfully juggle his career, his addiction and his girl.

Ben Kingsley is perfect as the hit man who lives for his job but can no longer do it effectively because Vodka has taken over his life. In other, less skilled hands, Frank could be a monster, but Sir Ben somehow manages to make him likeable. He’s an honorable man dedicated to doing his job well. “I don’t regret killing them, just killing them badly,” he explains. Téa Leoni, for her part, is terrific as the cynical but slightly daffy Laurel who somehow falls for Frank. Leoni makes you believe that Laurel could actually fall in love with this guy.

While the two leads hold everything together, it’s the supporting cast that gives the film much of it’s flavor. There is great supporting work from Luke Wilson as Frank’s sponsor, Philip Baker Hall as the mob boss Frank works for (these aren’t the Sopranos; they’re a down-on-their-heels Polish mob controlling the snow plow business in Buffalo), Dennis Farina as the head of the Irish competition and Bill Pullman as a connected real estate agent assigned to keep an eye on Frank’s progress through AA.

Special mention should also be made of the accordion-based, Polish folk music flavored score by Marcelo Zarvos. It’s a big reason the movie works as well as it does. Though the accordion isn’t exactly a silly instrument like a kazoo or a slide whistle, it’s a hard instrument to take completely seriously and it helps set the perfect tone for You Kill Me. It’s a raised eyebrow to let you know that not everything is supposed to be as grim as it appears and that everything is just a little off kilter.

You Kill Me is from a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely that kicked around Hollywood for 10 years. People liked it well enough to hire the writing team for other things (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe), but no one seemed to want to make it into a movie. Once Ben Kingsley took an interest (It’s produced by Kingsley’s BiPolar Productions) the rest of the pieces and cast took shape (Téa Leoni is listed as an executive producer). The film itself only ended up costing $4 million and is clearly kind of a labor of love from all involved.

One problem is that the movie might have seemed fresher and more original if it had been made in 1997 when the script was originally written. Some of its thunder has been stolen by other hit man comedies that have come and gone while You Kill Me languished; movies like Grosse Point Blank and The Matador for example.

Issues of freshness aside, the movie works. While it doesn’t aim for the same comic heights (or depths) as a movie like Bad Santa – a chuckle is more likely than a guffaw – it is nonetheless surprisingly entertaining. It seems a strange movie to be released in a summer season crowded with blockbusters, but perhaps it’s some kind of counter programming move. Regardless of the reason for releasing it now, if you can get into its bone-dry groove, You Kill Me is a nice little summertime palate cleanser and I recommend it. (Opens 6/22/07 in limited release)

You Kill Me: USA 2007. Starring Ben Kingsley, Téa Leoni, Luke Wilson, Philip Baker Hall, Dennis Farina and Bill Pullman. Directed by John Dahl. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Cinematography by Jeffrey Jur. Edited by Scott Chestnut. Music Score composed by Marcelo Zarvos. 1 hour 32 minutes. MPAA Rating: R for language and some violence. 3.5 stars (out of 5).

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2 thoughts on “Review: You Kill Me (2007) *** 1/2

  1. I have several ramblings in search of a point:

    John Dahl is one of those underappreciated old school genre guys that I support whenever possible (couldn’t do his Great Raid though, war movie is a genre I can rarely tolerate.) Red Rock West is wonderful, Last seduction has an overrated Linda Fiorentino but is top notch otherwise. I thought even Joy Ride, bad cast aside, was well crafted. I’ll see this, and Gandhi does good gangster. I rewatched Zero Effect the other day, and would file Bill Pullman in the underrated section too, though only when given something to work with, he’s stranded and bland in the wrong material.

    A few tidbits for debate: Prizzi’s Honor comparison is a bold one (obviously I’m not arguing because I haven’t seen this) and I liked Art School Confidential better than you did. I liked that it was uncomfortable, and even is somewhat daring in how Zwigoff eventually weaves a little authentic yearning into it. ASC is very uneven, and never really coheres, but I would consider it an interesting failure. Ghost World, on the other hand, is a masterpiece.

  2. After one viewing, I wouldn’t say You Kill Me quite achieves LS or RRW status, but I liked it. Also, I realized while writing the review that even putting YKM in the same sentence with Prizzi’s Honor was just asking for trouble and I almost took the reference out. I left it in because I really think it was made in the same spirit more than anything else. Maybe I should add a qualifying statement. I have to be careful because overhype would kill this thing. It’s a small movie, not an Oscar winning tour de force.

    I went into ASC with massive expectations. Maybe my expectations were off base, but they were disappointed all around and I left the theater kind of mad. If I had liked the main character in the slightest, I might’ve been able to get into it and even forgive some of the loopy serial killer business that I kind of hated.

    Anyway, it wasn’t the worst movie last year, but it was one of the ones that landed furthest from my expectations and that’s hard to reconcile.

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