Tracy Ullman wants to kill Kevin Kline. In Lawrence Kasdan’s darkly comic I Love You To Death, a wife plots the murder of her philandering husband.
You might also like: Top 10 Most Frightening Female Characters
I Love You To Death is a message movie in the strictest sense, saying quite unequivocally: Don’t cheat on your wife. There’s a morbid sensibility in the film, a sort of crude celebration of female liberation within the stone-age ideals of marriage and the “female place” in the kitchen, so it’s ironic that Tracy Ullman’s character (who soon tries to kill her husband because he cheats on her) is introduced to us in a kitchen, waiting hand and foot on her husband.
The film is based on a true story but if we are to disregard the physical elements taken from that story and placed on film, and try to understand the human side to the basically horrific events that took place, it becomes a strangely difficult thing to come to terms with. It’s in the title I Love You To Death, as Ullman’s character tells us she loves her husband so much she’d kill him and herself if he strayed away from their marriage vows. It’s an interesting dynamic within her character but it remains a morbid fascination for her, a rather sick threat that never materialises into anything substantial beyond the physical. Yes she sticks to her guns (no pun intended) but the film’s problem is director Lawrence Kasdan’s pedestrian, character-study-like pace never really gets to the bottom of her mentality, making for a bleak comedy that alienates its audience because it itself is alienated from the true-life subject matter.
Italian philanderer Joey Boca (Kevin Kline) runs a successful Pizza restaurant with his wife Rosalie (Ullman), and every so often he sneaks out with the guise of fixing someone’s plumbing or other such handyman job, and sleeps with many anonymous girl in the nearby apartment building. We meet him as he confesses his sins to a priest but can’t remember whether he’s cheated on his wife once or twelve times in the past week. Suffice to say he gets his jollies from straying away from the family nest, successfully keeping his dirty-deeds secret from his devoted wife. But, on a chance encounter at the local library, Rosalie catches Joey in the act but he doesn’t see her. Rosalie tells her eccentric mother Nadja (Joan Plowright) what she saw and they devise a plan to kill Joey. However, their plan to fill his spaghetti with sleeping pills fails so they enlist the help of Devo (River Phoenix), one of the restaurant’s workers (who happens to not like Joey very much while quietly being in love with Rosalie) and they ask him to shoot him. But not all goes to plan, so enter Harlon and Marlon (William Hurt and Keanu Reeves), two drugged-up hippies who really haven’t got a clue where they are, let alone who they are trying to kill. Yet for some reason, whatever they do, Joey still seems to be alive, and surprisingly totally oblivious to the fact that all these people are trying to murder him.
What is frustrating about I Love You To Death is that it gets some of its component parts perfectly right – the elements of screwball comedy and the cast are all superb – yet there is a distinct uneasiness in the film’s balance between light and dark tones. It’s understandable that a filmmaker would struggle to find much to laugh about in a true-life story about a wife trying to kill her husband, yet Kasdan tries to do this but only succeeds when the audience is able to suspend their disbelief beyond the very darkly absurd and sordid undertones of what the characters are doing. This isn’t screwball comedy in the sense of Priscilla Presley falling down stairs in The Naked Gun, yet Keanu Reeves’ Marlon smacks into doors and continually asks who everyone is as if he has a four-second memory. It seems odd that we should laugh at him when moments earlier Rosalie is in the bathroom crying her heart out, seriously contemplating suicide, the scene shrouded in an emotional sense of disgust and regret. The balance isn’t there, the tone shifting alarmingly between scenes, so when we as an audience are asked to sympathise with these characters we don’t have the ability because we’re lost in the ambiguity of their convictions.
It’s the character convictions that are perhaps the downfall of the film because there aren’t many people to like. Joey cheats on his wife and has little consideration for her, whilst Nadja is perfectly happy to break up a family, which has two kids, in order to teach Joey a lesson. Rosalie is all too happy to go through with it, trying to kill her husband on more than one occasion, and willing to spend money to get it done. There’s little association one can find in the two principle characters because both are guilty of nasty deeds, yet Kasdan isn’t willing to condemn either one. Is Rosalie right to take her revenge and is Joey deserving of it? The film never seems capable of answering such a question but because, ultimately, we never get to really know these characters, the audience can’t decide either. It’s just another frustrating concept that mars the film.
However, it’s a shame that such a great cast are stifled by a weak script and muddled direction because they all shine. Hurt and Reeves are exceptionally funny as the bumbling, drug addicts who couldn’t tell you the time of day – some of their interchanges are hilarious and the running joke of “the guy” (referring to Joey) is very funny. Ullman and Kline are also very good, especially Kevin Kline with his over-the-top Italian accent. But the two that really standout are River Phoenix and Joan Plowright – Phoenix’s loved-up do anything attitude to Rosalie, and Plowright who steals every scene she’s in as Nadja, the crazy mother who concocts several weird and wonderful ways to finish off Joey. The cast are the shining light of the film, transforming it from a passable, muddled movie to something that is at times hugely enjoyable and funny. Yet they don’t save it, because while their engaging performances are a joy to watch, the film that surrounds them is too full of holes. While Rosalie might say she loves Joey to death, there’s very little love in the film.
First published on DVD Times (now the Digital Fix) July 27th 2005.