If a movie looks like a Mamet, swims like a Mamet, and quacks like a Mamet, does that make it a David Mamet film? If You Kill Me is the example for consideration, the answer is "no."
You Kill Me stars Ben Kingsley as Frank Falenczyk, a hit man who's an alcoholic — or maybe he's an alcoholic who's a hit man; depends on what kind of day he's having. Frank works for his family, a group of Polish gangsters in Buffalo who are battling for territory and power against other ethnic gangs, particularly an Irish one headed up by Edward O'Leary (Dennis Farina).
Asked to kill O'Leary, Frank instead sleeps one off in his car in the airport parking lot waiting for the mob boss to arrive. Faced with eliminating Frank for his failings — this wasn't the first time something like this has happened — or giving him one more chance to get his life in order, family members Roman (Philip Baker Hall) and Stef (Marcus Thomas) opt for the latter, sending him to San Francisco to dry out.
In San Fran, Frank meets his handler, Dave (Bill Pullman), who gets him into an apartment, a job at a funeral home, and Alcoholics Anonymous. At A.A., Frank befriends Tom (Luke Wilson), who becomes his sponsor, and through work he meets Laurel (Téa Leoni), a love interest.
All the heavy lifting done, the movie finally gets down to the business of trying to establish what kind of movie it is. A black comedy? A character drama? A crime thriller? The answer it chooses is "yes" — which puts it square in the middle of Mamet country, right next door to Elmore Leonard land.
It apes the legends of the genre with mixed success. Some lines sparkle, seemingly ripped from Mamet's greatest hits: "Even people you don't like die" and "I didn't know I was an alcoholic until recently. I'm from Buffalo." And much of the humor is deeply perverse (jokes about necrophilia or how accepting A.A. members are) or clever and knowing (how the most powerful people in San Francisco are the real estate agents).
But You Kill Me has a case of the cutes. In a movie like this, it's a deadly component. The score occasionally provides aggravating musical flourishes with the comic timing of a TV commercial, and the film's sketch of Frank and Laurel's relationship is too charmed to be charming.
What saves You Kill Me from itself are the actors. I suppose we have casting director Carol Lewis, who has assembled seemingly incongruent pieces for the ensemble, to thank for that. Kingsley is, as ever, eminently watchable. He affects a perfect, flat American accent, with the occasional Slavic-touched syllable of a man not too generationally removed from the old country.
Pullman is simply fantastic in a role that doesn't account for much of the film's runtime. Leoni is best when she gets to be bad, which is most of the time; when the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely has her character playing to type, she flounders. Wilson plays — imagine this — a nice guy. He seems to tap into his own experience to flesh Tom out. Hall and Farina make their all-too-brief scenes together resonate. Thomas, whom I've never seen before, has got the goods. He won't sneak up on me again.
Director John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction) does his own gritty bit to rescue the film, but You Kill Me is ultimately Mamet with a heart of gold. It drives you crazy with its flashes of preciousness when what you really want is more kicks in the head.
You Kill Me
Opens Friday, July 13th