Among the warning signs of alcoholism is when one's drinking interferes with his or her work. But what is the moral imperative to seek help when the work in question is murder? That conundrum is at the heart of the droll black comedy You Kill Me.
Sir Ben Kingsley gives a typically dead-on performance as Frank Falenczyk, a low-level henchman for a low-level mob boss in Buffalo, New York. Our introduction to Frank deftly illustrates his lot in life. Clad in a black knit cap, the dead-eyed hitman takes a swig from a vodka bottle, tosses it on the snow blanketing his front yard, and shovels the snow until he reaches the bottle. Then he picks up the bottle, steals another drink and continues the process -- up until he has dug a pathway to the curb. He does what he needs to get by in between bouts of boozing.
Frank is a more accomplished alcoholic than he is an assassin. That becomes apparent when he is dispatched by his boss Roman (Philip Baker Hall) to whack a rival (Dennis Farina) at the airport. Frank passes out in his car while the mark arrives and leaves unscathed. That proves to be the last straw for Roman. He sends Frank to San Francisco and orders the man to sober up with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.
But Frank is not left to his own devices in San Francisco. Roman places his hitman in the care of a gruff real estate agent named Dave (an endearingly irascible Bill Pullman), who, in turn, secures Frank work in a funeral home. Check another irony; the killer's recovery now includes the application of makeup to breathe false life into corpses. And Frank even finds an unlikely romance when he meets Laurel (Téa Leoni), an acid-tongued enigma whose cynicism nearly matches his own.
Despite some pat contrivances, the screenplay by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus sports a wonderfully martini-dry wit. With the look of a guy whose humanity was beaten out of him long ago, Frank Falenczyk is one tightly wound guy. When Dave brings him a housewarming gift of cashew butter ("It's like peanut butter, only with cashews," Dave helpfully explains), Frank is leery. "What's wrong with peanut butter?" Director John Dahl, whose The Last Seduction is one of the better modern-day noir thrillers, gets mileage by placing this gangster in the touchy-feely environment of 12-step programs. The enterprise is further helped by Marcelo Zarvos' liltingly comic music score.
For all its considerable cleverness, however, there are a few hiccups. Frank's affection for AA occurs a bit too quickly, and the interlocking subplot of a mob turf war in Buffalo is never particularly interesting or surprising. Back on the Left Coast, a boozy Irish wake pops up at a mighty convenient time for the purposes of the story.
But contrivances are not a deadly problem. You Kill Me is smart and edgy and strengthened greatly by a superb cast. It's certainly no shock that Kingsley is marvelous, while Leoni again proves herself one of the best comedic actresses around. But the smaller roles don't get short-shrift, either. Luke Wilson does a decent job as Frank's AA sponsor, while Bill Pullman manages to steal most of his scenes. In this cast, that is no small feat.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen, the picture quality is excellent and does justice to Jeff Jur's cinematography, bathing San Francisco and Buffalo in pulpy blues and greens. The aspect ratio is 2.35:1.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is serviceable, but the volume can be irritatingly inconsistent. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.
Behind the Scenes of You Kill Me (10:22) is a standard promotional piece boasting on-set interviews with cast and crew.
The five-minute, 37-second Before and After Visual Effects Comparison is fascinating specifically because this is not a visual-effects movie. The film boasts more than 230 visual effects, with nearly all of the snow in the film the result of CGI. Rounding out the extras is a theatrical trailer.
In the post-Sopranos pop-culture universe, the notion of a gangster-centric black comedy might seem, well, blasé. But You Kill Me hits its comic targets most of the time - and it's a chance to see Kingsley and Leoni at the top of their game.