Colorful hit-men with personal quirks and psychological problems aren’t exactly infrequent visitors on the big and small screens nowadays, and “You Kill Me” offers us another—Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley), enforcer for his uncle Roman (Philip Baker Hall), who controls a lucrative snow-plow business in winter-prone Buffalo but is under pressure from Irish boss O’Leary (Denis Farina). Unfortunately, Frank is an alcoholic, and he botches an assignment to knock off O’Leary by getting smashed and snoozing while the guy goes off to a meeting with rich Chinese investors. The result is that the family business is put into imminent jeopardy and Roman ships Frank off to San Francisco to dry out and shape up.
The bulk of the movie details Frank’s California adventures, which involve trying to stay sober under the watchful eye of Roman’s stand-in, a sleazy real-estate guy named Dave (Bill Pullman), who’s not above using his guest’s talent to persuade a city supervisor to spare a valuable property from demolition. Dave not only arranges for Frank’s apartment and his attendance at AA meetings where laid-back toll booth operator Tom (Luke Wilson) becomes his sponsor, but gets him a job as a funeral home aide to mortician Doris (Alison Sealy-Smith). It’s through that gig that Frank meets Laurel (Tia Leoni), a local TV ad woman who shows remarkable ease in accepting Frank’s revelations about himself and develops an attachment to him so strong that even after he falls off the wagon and returns to New York when his cousin Stef (Marcus Thomas) informs him of big trouble there, she won’t let go.
There’s a shambling, low-key charm to the movie, which mingles serious crime elements and dark comedy reasonably well under John Dahl’s knowing hand. The script offers many small pleasures along the way, which the actors take ample advantage of. Kingsley is the mainstay, offering a more simmering variation on his wild-eyed routine from “Sexy Beast” that adds touches of vulnerability and even poignancy to the mix. And Leoni surprises with a performance that complements Kingsley’s beautifully, providing an easygoing whimsicality that’s so off-handedly right that you don’t notice how implausible her character is, without any back-story to provide context. The rest of the cast go through their expected paces with aplomb, with Pullman coming on especially fierce as the bumbling but nasty businessman.
The main defect of “You Kill Me” is the script’s lack of major plot twists, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do the smaller things right—there’s a dry wit to the AA sequences where Frank’s remark elicit a weird combination of astonishment and support from the listeners, and fine one-on-one riffs between Kingsley on the one hand and Leoni, Pullman, Wilson and Sealy-Smith on the other. But the larger gang-turf scenario plays out without any real surprises. The result is a picture that offers some modest amusement as a story of one very peculiar fellow’s strange redemption, but as a whole feels less clever than it should be.
But if Dahl’s picture won’t exactly slay you, the performances make for an oddly diverting little flick, though one more suited to home viewing than big-screen treatment.