Tuesday, June 26, 2007

You Kill Me: Gandhi as a Hit Man


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Mahatma Gandhi — or at least the actor who played him, Ben Kingsley — as a hit man for the Polish mob in Buffalo? What’s more, as an alcoholic hit man whose drinking is screwing up his job performance so badly that his employers, who are also his relatives, send him to San Francisco with instructions to go into A.A., work the program and sober up? That’s the central premise behind the new film You Kill Me, and believe it or not, it works. Shot mostly in Manitoba and Winnipeg, Canada — except for the San Francisco exteriors, which were filmed there -— You Kill Me is a pleasant black comedy that for the most part lives up to its promise.

Polish gang bosses Stef Czyprynski (Marcus Thomas) and Roman Krzeminski (Philip Baker Hall) are worried about an impending merger between Irish rival Edward O’Leary (Dennis Farina, considerably less ragged and disheveled than he was in his one season on Law and Order) and some mobsters from mainland China, so they assign Frank Falenczyk (Kingsley) to assassinate him before he can meet with the Chinese and form an alliance. Only Frank falls into an alcoholic stupor while waiting in his car for O’Leary to arrive, and sleeps through the whole thing. It’s at this point that they decide to pack Frank off to S.F., on the theory that the farther away they get him from his old friends and acquaintances, the better his chances of recovery.

Frank’s bosses have already arranged with Dave (Bill Pullman), a vaguely Mob-connected real-estate agent in San Francisco, to be his minder while he’s there: to find him an apartment, get him a job — as a mortician, one of screenwriters’ Christopher Markus’ and Stephen McFeely’s odder little jokes (“Let’s see: he kills people — let’s have him deal with people who are already dead!”) and make sure he gets to the A.A. meetings and, even more important, stays there once he arrives. At A.A. Frank meets a sponsor, a Teddy-bearish Gay man named Tom (Luke Wilson); and at a funeral service he has a full-dress meet-cute with Laurel Pearson (Téa Leoni), the stepdaughter of his latest deceased client. They stumble into an affair — despite the handicap of Frank’s relapses, which always seem to come on the nights he and Laurel have dates — and Frank actually gets in touch with himself and starts feeling happy. What he doesn’t know, though we do, is that the Irish-Chinese gang alliance Frank was supposed to forestall by killing O’Leary has not only become a reality, it’s squeezing the Poles almost totally out of organized crime in Buffalo. What’s a poor, newly sobered-up, family-loyal hit man to do?

Hardly original — at times it seems like Prizzi’s Honor meets Analyze This, and at other times like a way for Sopranos fans still to get their “fix” now that The Sopranos is history — You Kill Me is nonetheless a charming movie if you can accept its premise. It’s a film more powerful in its parts than as a whole: assured that everything said at an A.A. meeting stays there, Frank openly tells his meeting not only that he’s a professional killer but his bosses made him join the program so he can be a better one — and everyone there looks at him with this quizzical expression, as if they can’t decide whether he’s telling the truth or putting them on. From the opening scene, in which Frank keeps throwing his gin bottle onto the snow-covered ground of Buffalo to use the snow as a natural ice chest, to the one in which Tom is trying to explain the A.A. concept of a “higher power” to Frank while they’re in the toll booth at the Golden Gate Bridge (Tom makes his living as a toll collector) and Frank suddenly sees the bridge tower looming over him and decides that is his higher power, to a lot of other similarly cheeky and irreverent scenes throughout the movie (including one nicely done relapse in which Frank collapses in the street while the soundtrack plays Rick Nelson’s old hit “Lonesome Town”), You Kill Me is the sort of movie that toys with audience expectations even though little of it is outright surprising.

The director is John Dahl, who got a blink-and-you-missed-it cult reputation in 1993-94 for Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, two movies that were hailed as a one-person renaissance of film noir. They weren’t, but Dahl remains a competent if quirky director, sympathetic to the cheeky irreverence of the Markus-McFeely script and able to handle the few, necessary and blessedly restrained action scenes. The acting is reasonably good; Kingsley is effective as a man almost terminally out of it — though why does he use the same scratchy, zoned-out voice after Frank sobers up as he did when he was still drinking? — and Leoni brings an effective combination of assertiveness and charm to her role. Luke Wilson is also especially good, though for all his teddy-bear lovability the character is still one of Hollywood’s more annoying clichés: the man we’re told is Gay (when he and Frank meet he sings the praises of “the program” and then boasts that the meetings are “a great place to meet guys!”) but never see in any romantic or sexual involvements with men. And Dennis Farina is just as convincing as a button-down crook as he was as a rumpled, Columbo-esque cop.

You Kill Me has a few missed opportunities, notably the deadly seriousness with which it presents A.A. One would have thought Markus and McFeely would have leaped at the chance to make fun of the sillier aspects of “the program,” but instead we see all of it — the greetings (“My name is Frank, and I’m an alcoholic”), the serenity prayer, the personal revelations, even the scholarly intentness with which Frank reads the A.A. manual in his cell-like apartment — played straight and almost reverentially. Perhaps that’s inevitable in an era in which “rehab” has become the secular equivalent of a Hollywood religion, a way for publicly shamed stars like Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan to confess their sins and ask for absolution from their audiences (and, even more importantly, from potential employers). But it seems a shame that an industry that in the 1950’s regularly ridiculed psychoanalysis even though most of the Hollywood “names” were on it can’t muster the same comic spirit towards 12-step programs today.

Still, You Kill Me is a fun movie, a pleasant time-filler that’s well acted, well staged and cleverly and amusingly written. What’s more, at a mere 92 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome like so many modern movies do, and though it’s about murder and organized crime it doesn’t splash a lot of blood across the screen either. (The “R” rating is “for language and some violence.”) It’s not destined for classic status but it’s worth seeing anyway.