There’s a lot to be said for those directors who happily keep things on a workmanlike B-movie level without sacrificing what made them proud B-directors in the first place. Some claim to do such, but really they can’t wait to direct the next installment of some cinematically bankrupt Hollywood franchise. Even when he’s worked with escalated budgets, John Dahl has retained his playful noir side. Movies like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction deservedly offered him a career, but even if you examine something as seemingly routine as the Paul Walker thriller Joy Ride from years back, there is clear-cut style there, making it not a Paul Walker vehicle but a John Dahl one. His latest, the eclectic, often hilarious You Kill Me, may star an Oscar winner but its roots are firmly planted in the Dahl aesthetic.
Ben Kingsley plays Frank Falenczyk, a hitman and drunk from Buffalo who blows a major gig, and is summoned to San Francisco, where the fuckup takes up 12-stepping as an AA walk-in and books civilian time at a funeral home, where the corpses are only slightly less dead than his persona. Things brighten up when the steely, exec-attired Laurel (Tea Leoni, finally reacquainting herself with her blissfully dry comic side) takes a shine to him, and eventually the two are sharing a bed, followed by secrets, then followed by her all-too-willing participation in his real day job, which helps greatly when the Mafia foes start a war. (This is the type of picture where a sweet-couples montage is set to the duo inventively slicing watermelons for target practice.)
Like most of Dahl’s films, You Kill Me doesn’t hold up to great scrutiny, so its best taken in a cable movie kind of way. For this film’s brisk, wry 92 minutes, it has a certain economy that only a secure director can accomplish, not to mention a raucous, profanity-strewn screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely that seems ripe for pothead quotables someday. It’s filled with fun little around-the-edges performances too, like Philip Baker Hall’s aging, over-it mobster, and Bill Pullman’s jowl-jawed vulgarian trail-man (though the movie never really finds a satisfactory use for Frank’s affable, gay AA pal played by Luke Wilson). And unlike most “small” movies these days, You Kill Me seems perfectly in sync with its smallness, as any illusion of bloat would have sank the movie’s off-kilter sense of humor. And Kingsley and Leoni are an inspired pair of sad-sacks, the former’s severity given a buoyant, much-needed kick in the pants, and the latter a brazen delight, her best performance since her vixenish turn as Ben Stiller’s possible marital stray in David O. Russell’s benchmark Flirting With Disaster. The movie may not always kill per the title, but these two sure do, in every way you can interpret that statement.