He's Frank Falencyk, an alcoholic assassin in Buffalo. He loves his work but it's suffering, and he's needed right now. The Irish, in league with the Chinese, are muscling in on the Polish mob's interests. So after he botches a crucial hit, Frank's uncle sends him to friends in San Francisco and Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. This is the droll premise that sets the stage for offbeat encounters, such as the one at the funeral home where Frank works, a place he feels a connection to and which invites some witty dialogue by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, natives of Buffalo and S.F., hence those diametrically opposed cities.
The film juxtaposes the two milieus-trouble brewing in Buffalo, struggles to be won and lost in S.F. At least three elements make this deliciously wonderful dark comedy work, and grim and shot with film noir lighting, I still laughed out loud more during this film than many "comedies." First, the casting works perfectly in Kingsley's lead role but also especially well in supporting characters, much as in the old studio days. What made so many of the '30s and '40s B pictures brilliant was the depth of character actors. You Kill Me proves having great supporting actors lifts a fine film even higher. The superb players include Dennis Farina as the rival, heartless thug; Philip Baker Hall as Frank's uncle Roman who runs the Polish mafia; Luke Wilson as Frank's nebbish AA sponsor in S.F.; Bill Pullman as the largely clueless S.F. go-to guy; and, above all, Téa Leoni as Frank's love interest. She plays Laurel without a hint of sentimentality, gives as good as she gets, barely bats an eye when Frank confesses his day job, and throws into the action with unpretentious, energetic appeal. A sequel I'd root for is any film pairing Leoni and Kingsley again.
Second, director John Dahl knows his way around film noir. In the 1990s he has to his credit the gripping, chilling Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. Dahl interprets a wide range of locations with perfect art direction and lighting, superb compositions, and effective but unobtrusive sound. He stays out of the way; that is, he doesn't call attention to jerky camera movement as too many young directors do, getting in the way of their stories. Dahl knows where the scene is and what verbal and nonverbal delivery sells it in every detail. Finally, You Kill Me walks the tragicomic tightrope with breathtaking balance. In several scenes within seconds our gasp gives way to a groan gives way to a chortle. We enjoy spending time with the characters without ever being asked to like them as friends so expertly does Dahl distance us. We enjoy observing the twists and turns without ever believing them. You Kill Me is a film that knows exactly the difference between gentle, loving parody and unappealing pretense. And it delivers the goods in a quick 92 minutes.