The “hit man comedy” emerged as a genre almost without anybody really noticing it. But looking back at titles like Grosse Point Blank, Prizzi’s Honor, Analyze This, The Matador, The Whole Nine Yards, and many, many others, the trend of us laughing at guys who whack people is nothing new. Director John Dahl has created another worthy entry with the funny hitman gets sober comedy You Kill Me.
Ben Kingsley portrays Frank Falenczyk, chief assassin for the Polish mafia in Buffalo. The Polish mafia in Buffalo is not dominating the market (they supplement their income with a snowplow business), but what little they do control is in danger of being taken over by the Irish outfit led by O’Leary (Dennis Farina). When Frank bungles a hit on O’Leary due to his constant drinking, his boss (and uncle) Roman (Phillip Baker Hall) orders him to San Francisco to dry out. Frank needs to join AA and get himself together or he is going to be “removed” from his position.
While in San Francisco, Frank’s progress is watched by smarmy real estate agent Dave (Bill Pullman.) Dave gets Frank a job dressing bodies at a funeral parlor where he meets Laurel (Tea Leoni), there to bury a step-father she doesn’t much like in bowling shoes she stole. When she tells Frank they might not fit and he says he’ll break her step-father’s toes to get them in, it’s love at first sight. She’s a type-A, never take no for an answer gal who spends the movie refusing to let Frank blow the best thing he’s ever had.
Dave also makes sure Frank goes to AA meetings, where he meets gay bridge toll taker Tom (Luke Wilson), who becomes his sponsor. Frank doesn’t take to sobriety at first, but eventually he sees the need to quit drinking in order to do the one thing he is good at and enjoys, killing people.
The ability to root for a guy who is trying to kick the bottle so he can murder is the basis for enjoying and laughing with You Kill Me. The script, by Narnia screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, pushes the boundaries of credulity in the portrayal of Tom and the rest of Frank’s AA group when he honestly explains that he kills people and needs to get sober because it affects his work. You can see the comic battle going on between their revulsion and a desire to support.
The relationship between Frank and Laurel requires even more suspended disbelief. She not only isn’t put off by his profession, she warms to it and supports him in his endeavors. The film's saving grace is the combination of fast witty dialogue with top-notch performances by Kingsley and Leoni. They play their characters as real and straight as possible so the at times absurd plot comes across as even more hilarious. Without tons of flow killing back-story or dialogue on how or why Frank and Laurel act the way they do, humor is allowed to take front and center.
But we all know that a movie about a hit man isn’t any fun unless he actually kills people. So Dahl runs a parallel story with the Kingsley-Leoni relationship showing the decline of the Roman’s Polish group back in Buffalo. Two terrific actors, Hall and Farina, share the screen in a demonstration of one small business putting another slowly out of business. You almost wish Dahl would have directed a companion movie focusing on the mob war between the Poles, Irish, Greeks, Chinese and other groups fighting it out in Buffalo.
The movie is packed with good performers spouting funny dialogue and that’s really all a good comedy needs. Worrying about the plot isn't worth the trouble, since when the next laugh comes around and you'll start to feel a bit nitpicky. If you can roll with it and avoid focusing so much on whether or not the film is realistic, you'll enjoy it. How do you know it’s not real, how many hit men go to your AA meeting?