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FILM REVIEW : Slow Pacing Is the Real Killer in ‘I Love You to Death’

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Just why “I Love You to Death” (citywide) ultimately doesn’t work is really quite puzzling.

A black comedy with its roots in a real event, it centers around Rosalie Boca (Tracey Ullman), an unsuspecting wife who seems to be the last person in Tacoma to realize the energy with which Joey (Kevin Kline), her Italian-born husband, has been philandering. The explosion when she does learn is monumental.

Rosalie, largely at the urging of her spirited Yugoslav momma Nadja (Joan Plowright), decides that death is a pretty sensible payback for Joey, a not-untypical first impulse in such circumstances. But somewhere between this impulse and the finale, the air goes out of the comedy.

It’s peculiar. Lawrence Kasdan, the director, has cast his loving hotheads and zonked-out would-be murderers marvelously, led by a determined Plowright, her round brown eyes snapping with vengeance. Then there are the drug-drenched cousins Harlan and Marlon James (William Hurt and Keanu Reeves, respectively), who seem to have come to life from the front page of the National Enquirer, just under the Frog Baby Ax Murderers.

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You might not hire this pair to work your sump pump, but Rosalie’s devoted young pizza-parlor assistant, Devo Nod (River Phoenix), corrals them up as last-minute killers for hire. Phoenix’s playing of this ‘60s throwback, only slightly more connected to the world than his bosses, is a thoroughgoing delight.

Finally, in a demonstration that one can be unforgettable even in the tiniest role, there is Miriam Margolyes as Joey’s glowering virago of a mother, who knows right from wrong as clearly as momma Nadja.

Oddly enough, for someone who has built her devoted American television following playing a gallery of eccentrics, Ullman has the film’s sole straight role. She’s fine; vulnerable, trusting, loving and a towering figure of wrath when it’s called for. The problem is partly Kline, extremely funny in his physical humor but wavering in his accent, and partly the set-up of the story itself.

Rosalie and Nadja make one unsuccessful pass at an early demise for Joey, which misfires. Then, over the course of one night, they feed him spaghetti and meat sauce laced with two bottles of over-the-counter sleeping pills and have him shot, twice. In neither case can the women do the honors; they begin with the sweet-tempered Devo and, conscience-stricken, he moves on to his inspiration of the James boys.

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Somehow during this infinite night, with Joey’s blood seeping into his pillow, with Harlan and Marlon arriving in a taxicab for their hit work, and with Marlon taking practice swipes in the air with a baseball bat in case their .22 isn’t enough, the humor coagulates. It may well have been how it all happened, but to get away with humor this black, briskness seems to be in order.

The pace of the direction and--especially--of the screenplay by playwright-television writer John Kostmayer--begins to crawl, weighing down everything. Even the impulse to kill Joey begins to seem a little . . . extreme. He begins to be sweetly sympathetic; his manners toward guests are impeccable, even as he’s glowing with barbiturates and shot at least once and even when the guests are Harlan and Marlon.

The movie’s slowness doesn’t affect Hurt’s performance; sloooooooow is the only way Harlan’s mind works these days, and at that, he’s light years ahead of Marlon, who keeps failing to recognize Joey. Hurt’s slow-dawning play of expressions as he explains major points to Marlon or works them out for himself is a model of precise, convulsively funny acting. Reeves, whose hair looks as though it has been gnawed by cellar rats, is fine, approaching although not quite in Hurt’s league.

You only wish that they--or the magic of Phoenix, Plowright and Margolyes together--could save the entire piece. This is the first of Kasdan’s films from a screenplay by anyone else. Is there a moral lurking there somewhere?

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‘I LOVE YOU TO DEATH’

A Tri-Star release. Producers Jeffrey Lurie, Ron Moler. Director Lawrence Kasdan. Executive producers Charles Okun, Michael Grillo. Screenplay John Kostmayer. Camera Owen Roizman. Production design Lilly Kilvert. Editor Anne V. Coates. Costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Music James Horner. Co-producers Lauren Weissman, Patrick Wells. Art director Jon Hutman, set decorator Cricket Rowland. With Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman, Joan Plowright, River Phoenix, William Hurt, Keanu Reeves, Miriam Margolyes, James Gammon, Jack Kehler, Victoria Jackson.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).

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