3 stars (out of four)
On screen, especially when playing a killer, Ben Kinglsey always seems to be 87 percent human and 13 percent classically trained cyborg. The unblinking gimlet-eyed gaze, the tightly coiled body language, the habit of treating questions as if they were statements: All are tools (when they're working) or tricks (when they're overexploited) of a very clever actor. In "You Kill Me," the man with the matchless laser-glower portrays Frank Falenczyk, a Polish-American hit man living and working and drinking heavily in Buffalo . Frank is a full-on alcoholic, and his intake has begun to affect his job, so much so that his paternalistic extended family, at war with the Irish mob, relocates him to San Francisco to dry out.
There, while working a temporary job as a mortician, Frank meets his match in Laurel (Tea Leoni), a sharklike ad saleswoman for a local network. In the moral landscape of this droll dark comedy, the only woman who might forgive and understand the particulars of a professional assassin's livelihood is someone who makes her living selling air time in a major media market.
A good deal of "You Kill Me," from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, takes place in the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings attended by an initially reluctant Frank. (Luke Wilson plays his sponsor, a toll collector for the Golden Gate Bridge.) It's fish-out-of-water humor, the idea of a gruffly charming sociopath learning to talk about his feelings. This, of course, links "You Kill Me" to such mob affairs as "Analyze This" and "The Sopranos," and it's no surprise the screenplay has been kicking around since the mid-1990s.
Director John Dahl can't do anything about his project's timing. All he can do is shape it as best he can for the early 21st Century, on a budget of $4 million. Dahl's most interesting work has been in this low-ish money range, with the neo-noir pictures "Red Rock West" and "The Last Seduction." Here Dahl and cinematographer Jeffrey Jur lend their images of snowy, gra y Buffalo (mostly Winnipeg, in actuality) a grainy, melancholy texture, and while some of the digital composites risk cheesiness--especially in the vicinity of the Golden Gate Bridge--Dahl keeps all his actors in the same Runyonesque universe, without forcing the comedy.
The ringer is Leoni, and you'll have to pardon me as I wax rhapsodic for a paragraph. She's one of the truly distinctive comic actresses we have in the movies today, a tough broad with murderously effective timing and phrasing. (The way she tells Frank, "You're coming to dinner at my house," informs him and us everything we need to know about her character.) Leoni and Kingsley don't have a lot in common as performers, but they both know how to maximize a situation by minimizing a reaction. When Leoni's character learns what Frank does for a living, her look of puzzlement is marvelously subtle. "You Kill Me" has a lot of little moments like that. Mainly it boasts actors wily enough to get you laughing at exchanges such as this early getting-to-know-you dialogue between Frank and Laurel:
"I'm in personnel."
"No, firing, more like."
'You Kill Me'
Directed by John Dahl; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; photographed by Jeffrey Jur; edited by Scott Chestnut; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production design by John Dondertman; produced by Al Corley, Bart Rosenblatt and Eugene Musso. An IFC Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:32. MPAA rating: R (for language and some violence).
Frank - Ben Kingsley
Laurel - Tea Leoni
Tom - Luke Wilson
Edward O'Leary - Dennis Farina
Roman - Philip Baker HallCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times