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‘I Love You to Death’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 06, 1990


Lawrence Kasdan
Kevin Kline;
Tracey Ullman;
Joan Plowright;
River Phoenix;
William Hurt;
Keanu Reeves;
James Gammon;
Victoria Jackson
Under 17 restricted

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In "I Love You to Death," Lawrence Kasdan's amiable lazybones of a comedy about a wife's violent revenge on her womanizing husband, Kevin Kline looks as if he's had a Marcello Mastroianni make-over. As the indomitable Joey Boca, plumber, landlord and owner of Joey's Pizzeria, he's a smooth-operating Lothario cruising on olive-oiled wheels. With women, Joey has the knack; he's an artist, and, by the scores, they tumble for his velvety pickup lines. In fact, he cheats on his wife, Rosalie, so much that he can't keep track of the numbers. And how much is a lot? You know the figures for the national debt?

Joey is the sum total of his appetites; he's the life force incarnate, and Kline gives him a simpleton's uncomplicated zest. Sure, he loves his wife. Their marriage is perfect -- he brings home the food and she cooks it. Affairs are virtually his birthright. He works hard too, slaving 14, 15 hours a day, spinning pizza dough and clearing clogged pipes -- toting along with him the shiny red toolbox he's stocked with washers in one compartment and condoms in another -- so he's entitled to go out at night and blow off a little steam. Besides, as he tells one of his lovers, "I'm a man. I got a lotta hormones in my body."

Kline carries off the early scenes in this endearingly puzzling ethnic farce by sheer lasciviousness. (He has the twitchiest butt since Marilyn Monroe.) The actor has never been more physically inventive than he is here. His performance is full-blooded and robust; every part of his anatomy is in character, and he makes Joey so charismatic it's hard to hold his sins against him.

His wife's devotion makes him seem more sympathetic, as well. Lost in sweet obliviousness, Rosalie -- played by Tracey Ullman -- knows nothing of her husband's philandering. When Devo (River Phoenix), the golden-tressed young busboy at the pizzeria, warns her of Joey's unfaithfulness, she shuts her ears, believing instead that his boyish crush on her has prejudiced him. She also puts up the same dutiful resistance whenever Joey is criticized by Nadja (Joan Plowright), her tabloid-mad Yugoslav mother, who knows nothing of his cheating but despises him for reasons all her own. A visit to the public library changes everything, though. After catching her husband fondling one of his slinkier tenants between the bookshelves, Rosalie first considers suicide, then decides it's Joey who must die. And Mama, quite naturally, agrees. "The sooner he's dead, the sooner you start to live."

After Rosalie begins plotting her husband's demise, "I Love You to Death" -- written by John Kostmayer from a real-life story -- becomes a comedy of murderous ineptitude. As killers, Rosalie and her confederates are far from accomplished. Determined to erase the awful blight from her daughter's life, Mama Nadja hires a cut-rate hit man -- who arrives with a baseball bat and an Abraham Lincoln mask -- and, as partial payment, carries along a couple of cookies.

But Joey, as it turns out, is a hard man to kill. Murder is supposedly a crime of passion, but the jokes here are based on the brutal matter-of-factness of the killers. After failing to kill Joey with barbiturate-seasoned spaghetti -- he eats plate after plate, then suggests a game of Monopoly -- Rosalie and Nadja recruit Devo to finish him off. But his handiwork falls short too, and, desperate to bring their project to a close, they send out for professionals.

What they get is Harlan and his cousin Marlon (William Hurt and Keanu Reeves), a pair of stumblebum junkies with empty pockets and nothing but time on their hands. Time, in fact, is a rather amorphous commodity for these two. Their conversation is an odd variety of spaced-out free association, filled with long, drifting silences and non sequiturs, and the movie seems to slip into a kind of sympathetic catatonia to accommodate them.

There's a quality of delicacy in Kasdan's approach to the comedy here. Each gag carries its own special weirdness, and when the punch lines arrive, they float in softly, like balloons. Yet, nice as this may be, the movie lacks an essential dynamism. Despite its mixture of macabre slapstick and broadly stroked caricatures, the film has sleepy-time rhythms; it's easily the pokiest farce I've ever seen.

Though "The Big Chill" and "Silverado" were streamlined for aerodymanic efficiency, "I Love You to Death" is plagued by the same spiritual Epstein-Barr that infected "The Accidental Tourist." What's odd is that, despite the enervated atmosphere, the actors contribute such unrestrained, boisterous work. Ullman plays Rosalie with a girlish crinkle in her nose, and without the winning steadfastness she gives her, the character might come across as little more than pitiable -- a doormat. As Mama Nadja, Plowright has delicious comic timing; early on, one simple exchange -- in some Slavic tongue -- between her character and Ullman's contains a whole movie's worth of terrific. She's miraculous.

Outfitted in way-past-shoulder-length hair, a pair of dark glasses and a shaggy beard, Hurt is nearly unrecognizable. Though his role amounts to little more than an extended cameo, he brings a stoned extravagance to the part. His scenes with Reeves are filled with hilariously over-scaled eye-rolls and slow-motion burns -- they're like Laurel and Hardy on ludes -- and their thought processes are so exposed that you can almost count the synapses firing off, one by one.

While the action takes us where we might expect -- both to the hospital and to jail -- its resolution does not. Joey emerges from his ordeal a changed man and refuses to press charges. "Somebody puts a bullet in your brain, it makes you think." In reaching for a climactic coming-together, the filmmakers seem quite consciously to be reaching for that "Moonstruck" feeling. But here Kasdan doesn't show Norman Jewison's precision-grip sense of timing and structure. "I Love You to Death" is both pleasing and baffling. It's a movie oddly out of touch with itself, simultaneously anarchic and flaccid. You can laugh at it, even love some of it, but just as likely, you'll slip off to a dreamy world all your own.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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