Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Some people are calling You Kill Me a black comedy, under the assumption that any film that finds humor in something that normally wouldn’t be seen as humorous needs to have that label affixed to it. I prefer to call it a “human comedy” because the characters in it are flesh and blood with all of the flaws that come with being human. Ben Kingsley is Frank Falenczyk, a hit man for the Buffalo Polish mafia (should there be any other kind of mafia in Buffalo?) who after his latest screw up because of his drinking problem is ordered to head to San Francisco to clean up his act. Why San Francisco? Well, the polish mob has a connection there in a real estate agent, played by Bill Pullman, who will watch over Frank and make sure he heads back to Buffalo clean and sober.
The amusing irony of You Kill Me is that the film doesn’t believe that Frank needs to get a different job but need only go sober in order to be able to do his job better. I mean isn’t that what everyone who ends up in AA strives for? Notice I didn’t say that Frank doesn’t think there is anything wrong with his profession, but that the film itself doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with it either. That’s an important distinction because most films would have had Frank go on the straight and narrow in order to be successful, but fortunately You Kill Me has John Dahl at the helm. The director of such neo-noir movies as Red Rock West and The Last Seduction has always has a place in his heart for characters that don’t blend in with the mainstream and Frank certainly fits into that category.
One of the first things that Frank does in San Francisco is to find that AA meeting. He finds the protocol of the meetings amusing (I’m Peter and I’m an alcoholic… Hi Peter!) and we agree. At first Frank is a bit reluctant but after meeting gay alcoholic Tom (Luke Wilson) and asking him to be his sponsor he realizes that he has to clean up so he can get back to the job he loves. It isn’t long before he’s opening up to everyone, even telling the group what he does for a living, “ Hey, it’s called Alcoholics Anonymous”, Frank says. Of course Frank also needs to find a little job and what better job for a hit man than as an assistant in a funeral parlor. In fact Frank finds that he’s got a knack for making even the most decrepit corpse look as fresh as a daisy. It’s during one of those makeovers that he meets Laurel (Tea Leoni) who is attending the funeral of her stepfather who she really never liked anyway. She asks Frank to put step dad's favorite bowling shoes on for the funeral, “I may have to break a few of his toes to get them on” he says, “Whatever gets the job done” she replies, and just like that, he’s in love.
The characters in You Kill Me consistently defy our expectations in the way they react and respond to situations. Laurel doesn’t shy away from Frank once she learns what he does for a living; instead she wants to learn some of the tricks of the trade. A scene in which he demonstrates some of his “moves” is an absolute joy. Frank tells her that he wants to make amends for “killing badly” as he puts it. “I was supposed to slit some ladies throat but I was so drunk that I got her in the eye instead”, he explains. The film presents its logic with an uncommon glee that becomes infectious and I’m smiling even as I write about these scenes.
I mentioned the Polish mafia back in Buffalo but I didn’t talk about the boss that sends Frank to San Francisco in the first place. He’s played by the indispensable Philip Baker Hall as a guy who may have once been the King of Buffalo but is now being pushed out by the Irish mafia and its head honcho, played by Dennis Farina, another gem of a character actor. Ben Kingsley once again proves that he’s the go to guy for characters that defy description, and he makes Frank likable not by playing him as a cool tough guy but by showing how lost he is when he falls off the wagon and can’t do his job. Tea Leoni is superb as a woman who has not only found her man but maybe a new profession as well.
You Kill Me ultimately works so well because it makes us laugh at what we’re not supposed to be laughing at and it doesn’t give a damn.