Producers: Jordan Yale Levine, Jordan Beckerman, Anne Clements, William Rosenfeld, Bill Kenwright, Nicol Paone, Dannielle Thomas, Jason Weinberg and Uma Thurman Director: Nicol Paone Screenplay: Jonathan Jacobson Cast: Uma Thurman, Joe Manganiello, Samuel L. Jackson, Debi Mazar, Maya Hawke, Dree Hemingway, Amy Keum, Candy Buckley, Larry Pine, Jennifer Kim, Matthew Maher, Tom Pecinka and Alexander Sokovikov Distributor: Blue Fox Entertainment/Shout! Studios
Had the plot of Nicol Paone’s sophomore directorial effort, penned by Jonathan Jacobson, been used for an Ealing-style British comedy in the 1950s, it might have worked as a modest laugh-generator. But fashioned as a darkly comic thriller set in a contemporary New York, it’s woefully short on both humor and suspense, despite strenuous efforts by a solid cast.
The premise is a money-laundering scheme between a hard-pressed art gallery owner in New York City and a drug dealer in New Jersey. Patrice Capullo (Uma Thurman) is a high-strung Adderall addict whose gallery faces financial ruin because of her inability to secure high-rolling customers or significant coverage of shows for painters like Grace (Maya Hawke), who’s irritated at getting scant attention, or sales.
When Patrice’s drug connection (Matt Maher) takes a painting as payment, he mentions her difficulties to Gordon Davis (Samuel L. Jackson), who runs a Jersey City bakery known for its bialys that serves as cover for the criminal enterprises he operates for mob boss Anton (Tom Pecinka). Concerned that one of his colleagues has just been convicted for income tax evasion, Gordon proposes to Patrice a way out for them both: instead of paying him directly, his clients will buy artwork from her at high prices, and she’ll take a percentage before cutting a check to the artist, Gordon’s middle-man. Desperate for cash, Patrice agrees.
The scheme needs actual artwork to succeed, though, so Gordon assigns his hit-man, Reggie Pitt (Joe Manganiello), who disposes of his victims by suffocating them with plastic bags, to produce it. His paintings, as well as installations he makes from the bags he uses as weapons, become a sensation under his nickname “The Bagman,” and soon big-money collectors like Dr. Galvinson (Larry Pine) and his wife (Candy Buckley) go wild for it, finding it an aphrodisiac. The powerful critic known as The Kimono (Debi Mazar) prints appreciative assessments and seeks interviews with the artist.
But of course Reggie has to keep his identity a secret, even as he and Patrice get close. It turns out he’s not happy in his criminal work: he’d been forced to become a killer after offing one of Anton’s men who’d been responsible for his brother’s death. So the two work with Gordon to concoct a plan to secure his liberation by killing one of a group of targets so untouchable that they’re considered beyond anyone’s reach. They select a Russian oligarch (Alexander Sokovikov), a reclusive fellow they’ll lure to an exclusive auction in Miami Beach with the promise of a meeting with the Bagman. Patrice adds a few last-minute twists to the scheme to ensure Reggie’s escape.
The cast work hard to put this scenario across. Thurman, who also serves as one of the multitude of producers, chews the scenery with a vengeance in an attempt to be sultry and calculating, while Manganiello underplays, even delivering his speech about why he became a hitman without coming on too strong. The opposite can be said of Jackson, who revels in doing his customary shtick at loud volume (and with a bushy beard); he’s obviously having a grand old time. The supporting cast play the hands they’re dealt, some stronger than others, with professional aplomb; Amy Keum has an especially nice turn as Patrice’s ambitious assistant.
But all are hamstrung by a plot that flails rather than flying; a heaviness quickly sets in, and the combination of lightheartedness and nastiness never gels. The satire of the art world is particularly limp, and the money-laundering business becomes laborious rather than clever. Nor is the movie distinguished in its visuals; the production design (Maite Perez-Nievas) and costumes (Evren Catlin) lack pizzazz, despite some flamboyant outfits for The Kimono, while Bartosz Nalazek’s cinematography is ordinary and Gillian L. Hutshing’s editing pedestrian. This is only Paone’s second feature (after 2020’s little-seen and less appreciated “Friendsgiving”) and Jacobson’s first; one wishes them better luck in the future.
“The Kill Room” can serve for someone just looking to kill time, but you’ll forget it even before the closing credits are over.