From The Parallax Review Vaults: I Love You to Death (1990)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of I Love You to Death was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Now Playing on Indieplex

I Love You to Death opens with the bold proclamation that it’s based on a true story. Long ago, I learned to take those kind of claims with a huge grain of salt. In this case, while the filmmakers did take quite a few liberties when it came to the supporting characters and the actual outcome, the most unbelievable elements of the story turn out to be the most based-in-fact. If only one wayward performance and a flat ending had been avoided, this could have been a very funny movie. Instead, it settles for being just a little better than mediocre.

Joey Boca (Kevin Kline) is an Italian immigrant who is living the American Dream. He owns a thriving pizzeria, is married to Rosalie (Tracey Ullman), a loving and supportive wife, has two cute kids, and more mistresses on the side than he can keep track of. While he loves his wife, Joey doesn’t see anything particularly harmful about this last bit of information. So long as Rosalie doesn’t know, she can’t be hurt. But when Rosalie finds out about his adulterous ways, she initiates a bumbling plot to kill Joey that envelopes her mother, Nadja (Joan Plowright), her smitten assistant at the pizzeria, Devo (River Phoenix), and eventually, two perma-stoned losers named Harlan (William Hurt) and Marlon (Keanu Reeves).

That a plot where a man is poisoned and shot twice is made to elicit genuine laughs shows an impressive handle on a very tricky tone by director Lawrence Kasdan. Unfortunately, he allows Kline to go so far over-the-top with a cheesy accent, he nearly wrecks the movie. I understand that the real-life man the character is based on may have actually looked like one of the Super Mario Brothers, but did he have to add an “a” to the end of every syllable? It’s an incredibly over-used cliché that is beneath the film and Kline.

While the proceedings are zany enough without much embellishment, Plowright offers a genuinely funny performance by keeping a straight — some would say, angry — face in all of her scenes with Kline. She reaches hard to find the ultimate disapproving mother-in-law character and nails it. The film also gets a unique injection of deadpan comedy midway through the second act with the introduction of Harlan and Marlon. Hurt and Reeves hit every beat perfectly, stealing scene after scene with a style that can only be described as slow-motion screwball.

But then the ending had to show up and ruin what fun there was to be had. Playing out like a bad episode of Law & Order, it sucks the comedy out of the film as Kasdan and writer John Kostmayer struggle to find an ending that doesn’t go too dark, while avoiding a complete sell-out of the 80 minutes that preceded it. The result is a tepid attempt at a feel-good resolution that rings false on every level. I know — I know, the real incident ended in a somewhat similar manner, but there were at least some consequences for violent criminal acts. Kasdan and Kostmayer’s Hollywood ending is an insult to the audience and only cheapens their film.

This could have been a special comedy. Unfortunately, Kline’s hammy performance, an unsatisfying ending, and bad clichés of late-’80s/early-’90s mainstream comedies (including the annoying steel drum score to set a “fun” tone) pulled it back to the land of the routine. It’s worth checking out to see Plowright, Hurt, and Reeves flex their comic muscles, and for some inspired screwball moments, but not much else.

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