Judge Adam Arseneau always honors requests.
Love is always worth another shot.
Whoever had the idea to mix professional murder with twelve-step alcoholic recovery deserves a prize. An impassive, straight-faced romantic comedy, You Kill Me is as charming as it is inscrutably hilarious.
Facts of the Case
Frank Falenczyk (Sir Ben Kingsley, House of Sand and Fog) is a Polish hitman living in Buffalo, working to help keep the Poles from being driven out of the city's organized crime circle by the ambitious Irish. Desperate to hold onto what little territory they have, his boss Roman (Philip Baker Hall, Magnolia) sends him to kill the Irish boss, Edward O'Leary (Dennis Farina, Law & Order) on his way to New York City. Unfortunately for Frank, he has a bit of a problem. His rampant drinking has gotten out of control. While waiting for his subject to appear, he manages to drink himself into unconsciousness; Frank sleeps right through the hit.
Furious at his muscle's incompetence, Roman ships Frank off to San Francisco to attend AA meetings and get clean. A drunken hitman is no good to them, and Frank is the best in town when he's sober. It is imperative for them he gets clean as fast as possible. Frank has a hard time acclimating to the change in scenery in sunny San Francisco, until he gets some help from his sponsor, Tom (Luke Wilson, Idiocracy) and a feisty woman named Laurel (Téa Leoni, Fun with Dick and Jane). Together, they help Frank embrace the program and get on his way to recovery, which he finds surprisingly therapeutic.
Unfortunately for Frank, things are going badly in Buffalo, and the absence of his presence allows the Irish to muscle out the Poles almost entirely. Frank is forced to make a decision about his life and his recovery, and return home to settle some unfinished business.
With a comedic wit as deadpan as a cast-iron skillet, You Kill Me is a comedy in the loosest of senses only. Oh, there is plenty of humor here to be found for those with a dark and self-deprecating wit, but others might have to look hard to find the inherent comedy in a hit man from Buffalo abusing alcohol to the point of ruining his career opportunities and embracing AA to get his killing back on track. A Woody Allen film it isn't, even though it totally wishes it was. One is hard pressed to determine who is being made fun of more: organized crime or Alcoholics Anonymous. Either way, a deliciously depraved form of hilarity ensues, like Grosse Pointe Blank stripped of the easygoing humor and replaced by substance abuse.
Too acerbically dry to be a straight gangster film, too personal and introspective to be a comedy, You Kill Me dances a fine line between funny and painfully unfunny, subverting expectations one moment and embracing convention the next. The end result, a film composed entirely of dry wit, deadpan jokes, and irreverent dialogue are assembled to resemble something that looks like a comedy and plays like a comedy, but without any jokes whatsoever. All the humor comes from the little details; turns of phrases, confused looks, scathingly blithe observations, and the perverse enjoyment of seeing a hit man's life come apart at the seams drive the film into success. An "awkward comedy" might be a good way to describe it, if you wanted to be boring.
The film works as a tart comedy, due in part to its cast of talented actors and actresses, who are fundamentally miscast in their roles with hilarious results. You've got Ben Kingsley as a drunken Polish hit man, Tea Leoni as a sardonic ice princess, Luke Wilson as a gay AA sponsor, Bill Pullman as a bizarre real estate shark, and Philip Baker Hall as a Polish gang leader—and if the movie wasn't so amusingly wry and witty, you'd think the casting director had lost their mind. Except for Dennis Farina. That guy can sleepwalk a wise guy role. Except that he's the Irish mob boss, which definitely qualifies as a hilarious miscast. Kingsley puts on his best upstate New York Polish twang with amusing, if inconsistent, results, but turns out a solid performance. He captures enough of that hard-edged Sexy Beast intensity here while still presenting an honest, damaged, and vulnerable personality. You really gotta love a film that embraces such a bizarre and dysfunctional protagonist, a hitman who uses the skills and personal life lessons in AA to clean up his act in the field of professional murdering. In coming to terms with his drinking, he feels the need to make amends to the families of his victims—not for killing them, but for killing them badly due to inebriation, like having to shoot a guy seven times instead of just once. That's just sloppy and disrespectful. This quirky tongue-in-cheek sarcasm pretty much summarizes what You Kill Me is all about.
Stylishly directed, with a subtle attention to composition and framing, director John Dahl (Rounders) crafts a sharp-looking film. Not many films take place in Buffalo, and with good reason, unless you fancy cities ugly like an armpit with hellaciously poor weather. But to set a disgruntled, alcoholic Polish hit man in, it is the perfect locale. Shot in Winnipeg (distressingly, the only place on earth that looks more like Buffalo than Buffalo itself), the film exhibits a stylized oversaturation of greens and grays, as if the entire film was shot with seedy motel-quality fluorescent lights. Once the shooting moves to San Francisco (a city intrinsically and stylishly unique, and therefore irreplaceable by cheap Canadian shoot alternatives), the mood and cinematography lighten up dramatically, showing off that lovely blue sky and sunshine again.
Visually, the DVD presentation is balanced, with the aforementioned visual style of oversaturation, which leads to a certain amount of visual graininess present. Black levels are deep and arresting, almost too dark, with objects getting lost in the blackness. The sharpness is solid, despite the grain. Only one audio track, a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround presentation, balances nicely between its channels, with primarily center dialogue and only moderate action in the rear, mostly during the film's accordion and guitar-driven score. Bass response is balanced and kicks in when required. Overall, a top-notch transfer and audio presentation.
The primary supplementary feature is a commentary track with director John Dahl and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, who have a ball discussing their film, cracking themselves up every few minutes. A ten-minute behind-the-scenes IFC featurette takes us into the making of You Kill Me, with cast and crew interviews. Perhaps the most interesting feature, a five-minute visual effects featurette discusses how the CGI wizards managed to make Winnipeg in late May look like Buffalo in the dead of winter through visual trickery and adding a helluva amount of digital snow. All told, the film had over 230 visual effects tucked away in virtually every nook and cranny. This impressed the hell out of me, because on first viewing, I never caught even a single tell-tale sign of CGI-enhanced backgrounds or green screening. Very impressive work. Add a theatrical trailer, and we're done; a fair offering for a single-disc title.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What limits the popularity and success of You Kill Me is the singular dedication to deadpan humor, refusing to allow itself moments of genuine expression, or to even to crack a smile. The film is so cool, so slick, so interest in its icy style and deadpan humor that the moniker of "comedy" becomes somewhat moot. For black comedy aficionados, the film is funny, but extremely dry and sardonic, rarely ever generating more than a wry twitch of the lips on behalf of audiences. Some stronger laughs might have given the film the bump it needed to make a name for itself.
A charmingly offbeat black comedy, You Kill Me is a solid recommendation for those who like their comedies dysfunctional and sardonic. The blithely deadpan styling feels refreshing compared to the current batch of mainstream comedies, but a few more easygoing moments might have made the film a bit more accessible to the masses.
Not guilty, provided the film keeps showing up for weekly meetings with its sponsor.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Commentary with Director John Dahl, Writer Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeeley
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