Friends have been telling me to catch this flick since it came out last year. But somehow the idea of Ben Kingsley playing a Polish-American, alcoholic hitman from Buffalo, trying to get sober in San Francisco, uh, well, no thanks.
But, I stumbled on it last night while channel surfing for a laugh before bed (somewhere in the past I read or heard that a couple of good laughs before bed makes for a healthier and longer life, I often get them from books, but just as often from The Daily Show or Colbert, et. al.) and there it was, just starting.
I figured I’d watch it long enough to prove my movie instincts correct (which they usually are) and at first I felt vindicated. Kingsley made an almost ridiculously unbelievable Polish-American from Buffalo.
The mother of my older kids came from Buffalo, and had a Polish aunt that epitomized that particular ethnic reality. I have a brother-in-law ex-cop who is the son of Polish immigrants. I attended the wedding of one of his daughters not long ago and encountered his brothers and sisters, people I knew well growing up and hadn’t seen in awhile.
Kingsley wasn’t getting it. And then there was Dennis Farina playing an Irish mobster, and that portrayal was way off too, and the depiction of the Irish hoods under him was even more offensive to me, the stereotype of the heartless Irish thug an insult to the memory of many I’ve known. I’m thinking, man, was I right about this fiasco.
But before I could change the channel, there was an actor I recognized but couldn’t identify immediately, playing a character I recognized as well, but never saw that broadly and yet unbelievably realistically portrayed.
Then it hit me—it’s Bill Pullman, and actor I hugely admire, only this time with thick lensed glasses with thick black frames and a choppy aging nerd haircut and a stalker/flasher raincoat and gait and the manner of someone who has no understanding or respect for personal space or scruples about imposing his obviously unjustifiably condescending attitudes on people much more authentic and honorable and probably more intelligent than he obviously assumes he is.
Man, it’s a brilliant performance. And it cut the Kinglsey and even the Farina performances down to size and got me to get that they weren’t meant to be “realistic” or even “naturalistic” but hyper-realizations of popular culture stereotypes gone slightly askew until the underlying brilliance of the naturalistic acting reveals the metaphor in the “types” and their interactions for the surprises and inconsistencies in the struggles we all face in life.
If that isn’t too convoluted. And then along comes Tea Leoni (as well as Luke Wilson underplaying the “gay” character in a way that makes him the most realistic gay character in a movie yet). Leoni is the Katherine Hepburn of these times, for me. If you dig Hepburn, which some of my friends don’t. But to me, she’s one of the three greatest screen actresses in movie history (the other two being Gena Rowlands and Vanessa Redgrave).
Like Hepburn, Leoni can bring pathos to comedy and comedy to pathos, and as it turns out, this is a very funny comedy, that nails everything it’s laughing at. It’s an instant classic, like GET SHORTY or O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?—movies that take genres and bend them back on themselves in ways that not only are eye watering hysterically funny, at least to me, but also smart and poignant and nail their exposures of the truth beneath the cultural stereotypes.
Maybe I shouldn’t be writing this when I’m tired. All I mean to say is, YOU KILL ME, as many friends have been telling me now for a year, is a terrifically funny and satisfying movie experience. Bill Pullman’s performance is worth watching it for alone, but throw in Tea Leoni, who has never disappointed me in any movie role, and Kingsley’s ability to make me let go of my criticisms of his portrayal and accept it as a sincere homage to the movie type, making the humor of the performance even more resonant.
YOU KILL ME is a new addition to my all time favorites list. If you haven’t seen it, it might be on yours too when you do.