Saturday, July 9, 2011

You Kill Me (The Art of a Dark Comedy)

 What exactly defines a dark comedy? To let us laugh at otherwise overtly unfunny subject matter. A dark comedy is also made with a certain audience in mind, while your blockbuster comedy is made for a mass audience, so for the longest time dark comedy was something associated only with independent films. Those big studio heads began to take notice, however, when smaller films such as "Pulp Fiction" and "American Beauty"  took home big bucks and big Oscars. They were movies about dark things we shouldn't be talking about much less laughing at and they were crossing over into the mainstream.
2007's  "You Kill Me" is one of those rare gems that successfully combines both the independent dark comedy with the mainstream feel good comedy we all love to love. The film follows Frank Falencysk (Ben Kingsley), a hitman for a Polish mob in New York.  Frank takes pride in his work but something has interfered with his professionalism lately- he is an alcoholic. His mob boss pulls an intervention and sends Frank to San Francisco, where he is to get a normal job and dry out. Frank starts a job at a mortuary and begins attending AA. He wants nothing more than to return to work and to the professional he used to be, but in order to do this he must get sober.
Kingsley plays this role with a touching sincerity that makes you forget he is a man who kills people for a living. We are really rooting for this guy. He is suddenly in strange surroundings, faced with new horrors. The new enemy is not the rival mob in New York, but the temptation to drink that lurks around every dark corner. Enter Frank's new found love interest, Laurel (Tea Leoni), whom he meets at the mortuary when she checks on the body of her dead step father. Tea Leoni is such a gift to modern comedy, if you haven't seen her in "Spanglish" or "Fun With Dick and Jane", I highly suggest checking out both movies just to watch her act. She belongs in a Hitchcock movie with her dry wit and bizarre comic timing (Hitchcock loved those sassy blondes).  The following dialogue occurs on their first date.  FRANK: "I need to tell you something. . ." LAUREL:"Your gay."  FRANK: "I'm in AA"  LAUREL:" Well...okay. As long as your not gay. If I had to deal with dead bodies all day, I'd be drinking too."  FRANK: "Ooooh I'm okay with the dead bodies."
 The film is packed with these kind of scenes, and nothing is overdone. The dialogue is subtle and you actually have to catch the jokes, as they aren't screamed and accentuated by loud music or flying DNA ( such as the "hair gel" in Something About Mary - and yes that was funny), 
Frank also finds a new friend in his AA sponsor Tom played by Luke Wilson. Luke Wilson is pitch perfect with his sad, thoughtful eyes, lending support to Frank as he wanders through this new world of sobriety. In a touching scene early in the film Tom says: "Give it up because you want to. . .the first year it's all about trying, if you think it's about solving your problem, you'll fail. . .a lot." FRANK: "I'm already pretty good at that."
TOM: "You wouldn't be giving up anything you need."
And this is another example of what makes this dark comedy work so well. Humanity. The laughs come from characters we believe in so when it's time to feel sympathy for Frank he already has us. So often dark comedies are dark and shocking without the other elements necessary to carry an entire film. . 
You Kill Me is unique in that it is a film I would recommend to most anyone. The subject matter is dark but hilarious, the plot never takes the easy way out, and the characters are completely original. Film snobs and mass audiences can all find something here.  Martin Scorsese once said that "every time a movie actually gets made it's a miracle." The greater challenge in life always lies in keeping our sense of humor when we find ourselves in dark places. In this sense, a great dark comedy is a miracle. If it scares us a little to be laughing at such strange subject matter, all the better. The dark can be scary, but it can also be hilarious if you spend enough time there.