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High Concept Indie: John Dahl’s You Kill Me

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High Concept Indie: John Dahl’s <em>You Kill Me</em>

You Kill Me is a fish out of water comedy about what happens when an alcoholic professional hitman must attend AA meetings in order to save his job. Ben Kingsley plays the alcoholic. Téa Leoni is his wisecracking, but loyal love interest. IFC Films is the distributor. What else to say? You’ve watched this movie many times already, long before IFC was an itch in its daddy’s pants.

You Kill Me is the kind of high concept flick that used to start its life cycle as a spec screenplay sold to a major studio for a high six figures and end it either in a Kmart bargain bin or as snippets in a ’Comedy Tonite’ montage at the Oscars. In between, all of its cheapest/simplest/loudest jokes would cluster-bomb the airwaves in promotional tidbits until you knew them better than your own children.

Nowadays the indie boutiques like IFC do it faster and cheaper. Indie or mainstream, though, films like You Kill Me tap a perennial wellspring of mediocre crowd-pleasing formula. (Trace the line with me: Midnight Run-Pretty Woman-Doc Hollywood-Sister Act-My Blue Heaven-Get Shorty-The Whole Nine Yards-Analyze This-Meet the Parents-The Man...) Except that director John Dahl knows how to make a formula story snap with vitality and something like realism. Focusing on making every interaction between any two characters in this flick feel spontaneous and true, Dahl sells the jokes and plot points without shame. Even the requisite Fussy Black Woman, who temporarily hires Kingsley’s character as an undertaker’s assistant, rolls her eyes only at Kingsley and not the rafters.

Dahl casts his actors firmly in type, but doesn’t let them get away with simply rummaging through their trick bags. Dennis Farina and Philip Baker Hall essay the crusty underworld figures they seem to have been playing since forever—or for at least the last 20 years. But when they square off as enemies, there’s a real-world, rather than pulp-fiction, tension between them. Dahl draws on the aspects of his actors’ recognizable screen personas that seem most form-fitting. For Téa Leoni, that means indulging the snide screwball heroine she’s been perfecting across several so-so films. In You Kill Me, she delivers her Kingsley-foiling lines at such a flat pitch, with such blazing intelligence behind the eyes, that I could hear the ghosts of Capra, Hawks and Sturges crying out in envy. As Kingsley’s AA partner, Luke Wilson embodies the nicest white boy in the whole world as effortlessly as ever without putting us to sleep. Wilson being diplomatic and tactful carries the electricity some actors can generate only by brooding or fighting.

Kingsley gets to exercise his full range, from Schindler’s List fragile civility to (carefully modulated) Sexy Beast beastliness. I’m convinced that the sly Dahl undertook You Kill Me just to get to the scene where Kingsley has a conversation with a fat, self-pitying fellow AA member at the snack table. Piling her plate high, she confesses to having a cookie addiction, and Kingsley’s simple reaction to her psychobabble excuses is itself worth the price of admission.

Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.