Quite the checklist: the writers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe team up with the director of Joy Ride and The Great Raid to bring us a trendily dark indie featuring the comic stylings of Sir Ben Kingsley. I know, you can hardly keep from running right out to see it, yeah? Well, wonder of wonder and miracle of miracles, You Kill Me, the result of this surreal dream team, turns out to be a pretty fine motion picture. Not a masterpiece, mind you, nor the funniest thing you could see on a lazy summer afternoon; but a fine motion picture.
Here is one of those magnificently high concepts that you just know made some studio execs positively faint during the pitch meeting: an alcoholic hitman is exiled from Buffalo to San Francisco until he can dry out. Like any story idea, that could have gone very bad or very good, and one could do a whole lot worse to push things towards the "good" end of the spectrum than getting some free gravitas in the form of Kingsley, who in the cultural mind is likelier to call up images of Sexy Beast and not so much BloodRayne (or the all-cat version of Romeo and Juliet in which he played Capulet).* It's easy for a script to tell you, "this guy is a bad-ass," but it's not so easy to make a thing like that stick. Ben Kingsley can't help but make that stick. He carries bad-ass around him like a shroud.
And, it turns out, he's really damn funny. From time to time, he is called upon for a funny line delivery, but I think that You Kill Me might well be his first outright comedy, and it works much better than I would have guessed likely. I don't suppose I'd trust him in a Marx Brothers film, but for this role, which consists largely of being a slightly absurd straightman, he is mostly perfect.
His opposite number, in the role of our requisite romantic leading lady, is Téa Leoni, an actress that I first fell in love with all the way back in 1995 with the sitcom The Naked Truth, and have subsequently wondered with every new release why she isn't more renowned, and why she doesn't get better scripts. It's impossible to argue that she and Kingsley have natural chemistry, but their hard-earned artificial chemistry is chemistry nonetheless, and like her co-star, Leoni gets a great deal of mileage out of a constant deadpan expression and a refusal to treat the laugh lines as anything but straight dialogue.
Here's where things get a little bit weird: you noticed how I just claimed that the two leads are both straightmen? Well, so is the rest of the cast: Luke Wilson as a gay AA member, Philip Baker Hall as a gang leader, Dennis Farina as another gang leader. They're all very good, I don't mean to suggest otherwise. But none of them is the "funny" character. Basically, this is a comedy centered around people pitching straight lines at each other.
There's nothing exactly wrong with that: it is funny after all, or at least I found it funny. Nor is it exactly unique in this respect. The modern indie scene is positively littered with the too-hip bone dry kind of comedy in which all of the humor comes out of the quiet desperation of characters who deal with the absurd with irony, or by ignoring it. But it's worth remembering that a whole lot of modern indie comedies kind of suck.
You Kill Me does not suck. But it comes much closer than I'd like it to. The fact is, the film is simply too laid-back, detached, cool, casual, whatever, for its own good. I am reminded of Woody Allen's line: "If I get too mellow, I ripen and rot." That's more or less what happens here. It's such a low-key movie that it traipses into actual boredom by the end, and it doesn't really recover. This happens pretty late - basically, once the alcoholism subplot has been mostly resolved in favor of the "will he ever be a hitman again?" subplot - so it doesn't topple the whole movie. But it's awfully hard to be enthusiastic about a film that ends in a materially worse place than it begins.
Hard, but not impossible. There's too much too like about You Kill Me, and even a tiny bit to actually love, and until the laid-back antienergy turns into a liability, it's an unmistakable boon: it gives the movie an easy insinuation that makes it almost impossible to defend against it sneaking under your skin before you realize what's going on. It's no less playful because the ending turns lazy, after all.
Or, put it another way: this week you have two comedies to chose from: You Kill Me or Evan Almighty. That's what they call a "moment of clarity."