For as often as he has been great (Schindler’s List, Sexy Beast), he’s just as often turned up in movies that had no hope of being any good (BloodRayne, A Sound of Thunder, Spooky House, Thunderbirds). His latest film You Kill Me isn’t exactly in that latter group, but it’s brimming with misjudgments, not least of which is Kingsley’s performance. He plays Frank Falenczyk, a hit man employed by a mobbed-up Polish-American family in Buffalo. We first see him swigging vodka while shoveling the snow from his front walk. He keeps at that bottle for the rest of the day, and by the time he’s supposed to rendezvous with his target that night, he’s already passed out drunk. This is the last straw for his beleaguered crime-boss uncle Roman (Philip Baker Hall), who sends him to San Francisco to dry out, assigning a weird real-estate agent (Bill Pullman) to follow Frank around there and make sure he attends his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and stays away from bars.
Kingsley adopts an accent that fluctuates so wildly it’s impossible to tell whether he was trying for New York, Chicago, Mumbai, or Melbourne. He does a fair job of playing Frank’s initial disgust at the AA meetings’ touchy-feely vibe, but his struggles with the bottle are never convincing, nor is the affair that Frank has with Laurel (Téa Leoni), whom he meets working his temp job at a funeral parlor. The two actors have little chemistry, and while Leoni’s cool self-possession works for her when she’s delivering the jokes here, the same quality undermines her attempts to play someone who’s so desperate for a man that she sticks with Frank even after he comes clean about his drinking and his real job. That leads to the bigger problem: This movie is supposed to be funny, but it’s really not. Veteran director John Dahl has built suspense very well in previous films Red Rock West and Rounders, and he shows that talent here in a scene in Roman’s house, where the crime family prepares for a last-stand shootout with a rival gang. Still, nothing in Dahl’s previous work indicates any comic talent whatsoever. It should be laughable how easily both Laurel and Frank’s A.A. sponsor (Luke Wilson) accept his livelihood, and it should be appallingly funny midway through the film when Frank opens up to his fellow A.A. members about what he actually does for a living. Instead, Dahl films it so straightforwardly and without snap that all the jokes get lost.
It’s easy to see what the screenwriters were aiming for, especially if you’ve seen Grosse Pointe Blank or more recently The Matador, two black comedies that memorably played the personal troubles of professional killers for laughs. This movie could have been in that same league with a better choice of director and lead actor. (Kingsley should have switched roles with Pullman, Hall, or even Wilson.) Instead, You Kill Me leaves you to imagine that superior version of itself in your head, since the one on the screen falls so painfully short.
You Kill Me
Starring Ben Kingsley and Téa Leoni. Directed by John Dahl. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Rated R.