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You Kill Me
Director: John Dahl
Screenplay: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Stars: Ben Kingsley (Frank Falenczyk), Téa Leoni (Laurel Pearson), Luke Wilson (Tom), Bill Pullman (Dave), Dennis Farina (Edward O'Leary), Philip Baker Hall (Roman Krzeminski), Marcus Thomas (Stef)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2007
Country: U.S.
You Kill Me
You see … I'm an alcoholic … and a hit man … At this point, we've seen Ben Kingsley play so many different characters--from his Oscar-winning turn as Mahatma Gandhi in Richard Attenborough's 1982 film, to a psychotic Cockney gangster in Sexy Beast (2001)--that we could accept him in just about any role. He's that much of a chameleon, despite his instantly memorable face that seems oddly suited to a wide range of ethnicities and nationalities (he has effectively played Indian, Jewish, Iranian, British, Italian, Russian--the list is endless). In John Dahl's low-key black comedy You Kill Me, he again disappears into a role, this time playing an aging Polish hit man from Buffalo whose drinking problem is causing him troubles at work. Specifically, he sleeps through a very important hit because he's drunk, which causes the head of the Polish crime family (Philip Baker Hall) to send him to San Francisco to dry out.

Why does Frank need to traverse the entirety of the United States just to attend AA meetings? (As he says sarcastically, “You think they don't have beer there?”) No idea. And, for the most part, that is the way screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (working far, far away from the magical land of Narnia) like to play it. You Kill Me takes place in “Black Comedy Land,” where not everything has to make sense as long as it works as a set-up. Unfortunately, the set-ups in You Kill Me don't always lead to real payoff (for example, the only fathomable reason for sending Frank to San Francisco is to generate some East Coast/West Coast culture clash, but there is little to be found).

One significant head-scratcher is the character of Laurel Pearson (Téa Leoni), who Frank meets at the mortuary (where he has an enforced new day job) because her none-too-beloved stepfather has passed away. Leoni plays Laurel with an excellent mix of dry wit and a no-nonsense approach to life, and Frank can't help but ask her out. Perhaps he is drawn to her practicality or her lack of pretension; either way, her character doesn't really make a lick of sense except as another step for Frank to take on his way to becoming a better person. Their relationship is a contrivance through and through, especially once Laurel learns that he is a hit man, which barely causes her to bat an eye (although she is repulsed by his story about trying to slit a woman's throat and accidentally stabbing her in the eye instead). This is, of course, part of the film's droll approach to the crime genre (Frank's entire AA meeting had roughly the same response when he confesses not only his profession, but his desire to get back to it ASAP), but it's almost too understated, giving the impression of a lack of effort, rather than a conscious subversive of expectations.

In this respect, You Kill Me never quite gets its feet, despite some very funny moments. The performances are all good, including Bill Pullman as a shady real-estate agent hired to tail Frank and Luke Wilson as Frank's gay AA sponsor. In fact, in these two character we can see a perfect example of the film's lack of tonal consistency: While Pullman plays his role to the hilt, exaggerating every loathsome tick of a truly loathsome character, Wilson downplays his to the point of making him feel almost invisible. Director John Dahl, who made several superb neo-noirs in the mid-1990s (including 1993's Red Rock West and 1994's The Last Seduction), has an inherently low-key style that never tries to push boundaries, but in this instance it seems that a little more energy would have done the film a world of good.

Overall Rating: (2.5)

Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

All images copyright ©2007 IFC Films


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