As its title implies, You Kill Me has a rather morbid sense of humor. It's about a Buffalo hitman who's sent to San Francisco to recover from the alcoholism that's begun to interfere with his work, and if that doesn't already strike you as a little weird - San Francisco? - you may have trouble getting on the movie's frequency. It's a pretty low frequency, despite the occasional offing of someone. And director John Dahl doesn't really seem to care whether we find it all that funny. But then he'll spring something on us - a line delivered so sardonically that we can't believe someone both said it and meant it. And the movie's skewed sense of morality has a cumulative effect. You finally find yourself pulling for the hitman, hoping he'll (in his own words) "get sober and get back to killing full-time." Everybody deserves a second chance.
Ben Kingsley plays the hitman, a Polish thug who'd just as soon shoot you as look at you. And you have to wonder whether Kingsley is going to spend the whole rest of his career living down Gandhi. He was terrifying in Sexy Beast, where he played a psychopathic hitman, and if he's less terrifying as an alcoholic one, he still has this way of drawing us to him without seeming to meet us halfway. (He never blinks, which gives him an unnerving screen presence.) Kingsley's Frank Falenczyk likes to keep things nice and clean, but San Francisco can bring out the messy in one, and the movie plays up the fish-out-of-water element. Only in the funeral parlor where he takes a job sprucing up corpses does Frank feel entirely comfortable. And that's where he meets Laurel (Téa Leoni), a TV sales rep with a personality like death warmed over.
I've never bought Leoni as a comedian, but this time she kills, going along the grain of her personality - cold, bitter, defensive - instead of against it. (She's the opposite of wacky.) Leoni's Laurel has been burned by love so many times she's practically encased in asbestos, but she sees something in Frank - a frankness, if you will. And their budding romance is one of the more unorthodox love stories in recent memory, a delightful push-pull that doesn't betray a single ounce of sentimentality. Now if only Frank can stay sober, which he tries to do with the assistance of AA. At first, he's resistant. ("Too talky," says this man of few words.) But with help from a gay sponsor (Luke Wilson, loping through another performance), he soon starts climbing the 12 steps like he was on an escalator. Just imagine his "People I've Harmed" list.
You Kill Me is like The Sopranos meets Six Feet Under, and with such impressive influences you kind of wish it was more inspired than it turns out to be. But it's certainly more inspired than, say, Analyze This or That, where Robert De Niro's hitman was so sweet you wanted to hug him to death. And there are some nice things happening on the margins, as when Dennis Farina and Philip Baker Hall, two of our best character actors, go at it back in Buffalo. They're the heads of rival mob families, Italian and Polish, and Frank knows he'll never be completely recovered until he heads back home and ties up some loose ends. But by that time we're so comfortable with what he does for a living that we practically pull the trigger ourselves. You Kill Me won't leave you down on the floor, gasping for air, but it isn't firing blanks either.