Tuesday, May 9, 2017

I Love You to Death

(PG-13, Tri-Star Pictures, 97 mins., theatrical release date: Apr. 6, 1990)

Aside from Marisa Tomei, Kevin Kline is one of the last Oscar recipients I can think of to be rewarded for his comedic prowess. In 1989, he won Best Supporting Actor as the blustery Otto from A Fish Called Wanda, where he breathed lustily from Jamie Lee Curtis' boot, insulted the "so superior" British every opportunity he could and gulped down Michael Palin's beloved aquarium, fin by fin. An impulsive, imperialist cad whose self-delusional claims of great intellect where debunked by his shapely partner-in-crime Curtis, Kline's portrayal of Otto remains the high mark for unctuous invention in the farcical game.

Kline's first role since nabbing that trophy doubles down on Otto's buffoonish machismo. I Love You to Death, which reunited him with director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Silverado) and paired him with River Phoenix (whose performance in Running on Empty was also in the running when Kline won), casts him as Joey Boca, a swarthy pizzeria owner who is introduced confessing to a priest his sin of adultery, committed twice in one week. Or was it four times with two women? But what about the four women last week? Best to round it off at a dozen give or take a couple of times, which he makes up promptly by bedding both Victoria Jackson and Phoebe Cates (Kline's wife in an uncredited cameo).

Joey Boca sees neither harm nor foul in his indiscretions, simply an extension of the American dream which finds him at one point a good-natured family man and the next a lusty hedonist. "I'm a man," he tells Jackson's Lacey in a post-coital rationalization, "I got a lotta hormones in my body." His wife, Rosalie (Tracey Ullman), is dutiful and headstrong in her own way, but in denial herself. To her, Joey's merely flirting, despite the concern of smitten pizzeria co-worker Devo Nod (Phoenix), who catches Joey on the phone with a mistress, fondling pizza dough with all the sensuality he reserves for female flesh.

That Rosalie will discover the truth about Joey's routine plumbing excursions is unavoidable, but her thirst for revenge in the aftermath, deciding on murder as a suitable punishment on the advice of her tabloid junkie of a Mama Nadja (Joan Plowright), is a little less predictable. Joey is too full of life and marinara sauce for a first-degree consummation of "'til death do us part."

As scripted by John Kostmayer, I Love You to Death was inspired by the well-publicized case of Frances Toto from Allentown, PA, whose five unsuccessful attempts on her oafish hubby Tony's life were quickly forgiven by the husband, who went so far as to raise the $50,000 bail money to keep his family together. Though Frances was prosecuted and jailed for four years, they stuck together after her release and remain, to this day, a happy couple.

Kostmayer and Kasdan translate this incredible true story as a combination of ethnic comedy and black comic farce which could be pitched as "Moonstruck on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." But the result is far shaggier than either Jewison or Almodovar demonstrated, the zippy energy expected of screwball comedies traded in for the appeal of the various characters and their respective performances. Luckily for Kasdan, he's assembled a surplus of talent to keep the picture going even when the proceedings threaten to peter out.

Opposite the physically robust and carefully caricatured Kline, the equally talented Tracey Ullman opts for a warmer characterization of the cuckolded Rosalie. It's a valiantly humanized effort on her part, as there's nothing particularly funny about the epiphany Rosalie experiences while stopping at the library and her subsequent breakdown in a restroom. She's also an effective median given that Ullman is flanked by the loud presences of clown Kline and joker Joan, and not just in a particularly funny bilingual argument between Joey and Nadja during a public dinner.

Ullman's dedicated personification teases out the black comedy with ease. As scorned as she is, she hopelessly loves Joey enough to opt for a painless way out for her paramour.

Joan Plowright, meanwhile, lives up to her surname as Rosalie's mom, a feisty crone who just has to listen to Johnny Mathis when asked to put on a record to drown out a gunshot and inaugurates the first attempted hit on Joey with a family friend, paying him in cookies and speaking like the Serbian Marla Brando. The favor is accepted by the reluctant assassin, who bumbles into Joey's backyard with a baseball bat and ill-fitting Abe Lincoln mask and just as swiftly chickens out.

Just as inept in their services are Devo, too sensitive to fire a pistol despite having a brother in the Marines, and the supposed pros he hires to finish the job, lowlife cousins Harlan and Marlon James. While River Phoenix is comically spacey as Devo, William Hurt (another of Kasdan's good luck charms) and Keanu Reeves go even farther out there as the druggie James boys, dimwitted and amusingly unkempt casualties of their respective generations. Their banter is marked with pregnant pauses, slow-on-the-uptake realizations and general imbecility. They can't even locate Joey's heart without remembering, and then butchering, the Pledge of Allegiance.

Even Miriam Margolyes, who as Mama Boca arrives late in the game to beat Joey into shame, makes her single minute onscreen an uproarious delight.

The combined talents of this ensemble, all of whom are precise players (even Keanu Reeves, who is as smart being stupid here as Ted Logan), works strange magic onto the screenplay, which draws out the madcap murder games like it was simmering a pot full of spaghetti sauce to a roiling bubble, with Kline stumbling in as flesh-and-blood punchline. It's not particularly accommodating to certain character motivations, and the somnolent pacing isn't rewarded by much of a finale, which departs drastically from the facts of the Toto case for a rousing reconciliation.

And yet Kline remains sublime even when Joey is dosed with two bottles of barbiturates and takes a bullet clear through his chest. It just makes him all the more genial, in a bizarre way, as he offers Harlan & Marlon cheese and crackers with a pale, bleary face. Even when his Italian accent is laid on so thick that you'd expect him to suggest breadsticks, Kline is a physical marvel throughout the movie. Just the way he acts with his hinder is enough to put Jim Carrey to shame.

Kasdan and Kostmayer go lax with the pacing in ways that grossly simplify what should have been a crackerjack comedy of unreliable manners, their conclusion aiming too hard at achieving audience goodwill. If you don't get as much of a kick out of Hurt and Reeves like I do, their shenanigans will slow the procession down even as Ullman's and Plowright's energies barrel on. I Love You to Death has a piping hot ensemble yet a curiously undercooked slab of dough supporting them. Still, it got zestier laughs out of me than most of the retro comedies I've endured, so maybe it will come full circle in the future. Mama Nadja says it best: “I like you once. Maybe someday I like you again."

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