This black comedy about the travails of an alcoholic hitman doesn’t miss a beat. In the spirit of Pulp Fiction (but without the graphic violence), You Kill Me is one of the most enjoyable cinematic romps of the year.
We first meet Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley) shoveling snow in front of his row house in Buffalo. A sanitation truck pulls up and the driver tells Frank that his dad, Roman Krzeminski (the ever reliable Philip Baker Hall), has a job for him. Roman is the head of a Polish crime family and needs to protect his dwindling turf from Irish crime boss Edward O’Leary (Dennis Farina in his patented bad guy role). As the family’s longtime enforcer, Frank is given the task of leveling the playing field by whacking O’Leary. Unhappily for Frank, vodka is not a performance enhancing drug, and he botches the job. A sorely disappointed Roman gives Frank (whose promise to do better next time would have been more convincing if he had not thrown up on Roman’s shoes) his marching orders. He is told to go to San Francisco and dry out, “or else.”
Frank is a Buffalo guy and San Francisco is not his kind of town. Baring his soul at Alcoholics Anonymous is also not part of his taciturn persona, although he finally comes to value the advice of Dave (Bill Pullman), his gay AA mentor who works as a toll collector on the Golden Gate Bridge. Whatever his cultural disorientation, Frank’s career counselors back East have found the perfect job for both a man with his background and those of us in the audience: assistant in a funeral home. Frank is soon working wonders with makeup, and shortly into his newfound career he meets Laurel Preston (Téa Leoni in a spectacular performance). Laurel blows into the funeral home with a pair of bowling shoes to accompany her not-so-dearly departed stepfather on his journey to eternity. The shoes turn out to be too small, but Frank takes care of that problem by employing a solution that he has no doubt used on some of his past adversaries. Laurel is a put-down artist of consummate skill (she would be the perfect girlfriend for Dirty Harry, if he could only handle her) with a wicked wit and a studied disdain for the conventions of life. She soon becomes the object of Frank’s affections. While his clumsy courtship of Laurel is unexpectedly crowned with success, Frank is not so lucky in his struggles with the bottle.
Frank falls off the wagon at a raucous funeral celebration when he is continuously plied with drinks by the not-so-grieving crowd. With alcohol fueled false confidence, he unwisely offers to drive one of the couples home. A combination of the hand controls setup for a disabled driver and a move put on Frank by the wife while her husband is answering a call of nature in an alley leads to an unfortunate accident — yet another hint that Frank might be well advised to take his Alcoholics Anonymous group more seriously. In his binary mind, however, Frank believes he has only two choices: He can continue life as a drunken, unemployed hitman, or sober up and go back to killing people. Needless to say, he redoubles his efforts at sobriety. Frank’s explanation of his moral dilemma to his AA group is but one of the many comic gems in the film.
Frank is soon sober again and given a chance to revive his dormant career. Tom (Luke Wilson as a smarmy sleaze-ball) is a local real estate agent with a problem. He stands to make a fortune if he can sell a piece of prime San Francisco residential property. The only hitch is the city wants to tear the house down as an earthquake hazard. Can Frank help him by convincing a key member of the Board of Super-visors it would be a crime to tear down such a historic residence? Scorning ninja garb, Frank turns up in the supervisor’s office clad only in his underwear. He tells the startled supervisor both the reason for his abbreviated garb and appeals to his sense of public good. Frank’s entreaties fall on deaf ears, and so he takes an approach that even the pharmaceutical lobby has not yet tried. The deal is sealed and Frank is back in business.
The timing of Frank’s recovery is serendipitous because things have gone sour back in Buffalo and our newly minted AA success story is forced to take leave of both Laurel and San Francisco. While time has not dulled Frank’s skills, it turns out sharing his trade secrets with Laurel was well advised.
The only thing You Kill Me asks from its audience (and no problem for those of us with a mordant sense of humor) is that we play along with the notion that a hired killer is not such a bad guy once you get to know him — a small price to pay for the rewards of this sharply honed, quirky little comedy. n