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I Love You to Death Reviews

Having tried his hand at a wide range of films, from the noir flourishes of BODY HEAT, to the revisionist western SILVERADO, to the thirtysomething yuppie angst of THE BIG CHILL, director Lawrence Kasdan undertakes a dark, blue-collar screwball comedy in I LOVE YOU TO DEATH. The result is a one-joke movie. Granted, the joke is pretty good and, when it comes, is well-executed. But it's not enough to sustain a full-length feature that is further hindered by surprisingly weak performances from its leading players. I LOVE YOU TO DEATH (henceforth referred to as ILYTD) is based on a true story, which may be its biggest single problem. In attempting to maintain a nodding acquaintance with the facts, Kasdan and writer John Kostmayer (for the first time Kasdan isn't working from his own script) may have been prevented from fully exploring the comic possibilities of the genuinely funny and offbeat cast of characters they've assembled here, played by some of the screen's most gifted actors. Kevin Kline leads the ensemble as Joey Boca, the married owner of an apartment building and a pizza shop, who "suffers" from a prolific case of Don Juanism. Many of his conquests, like Lacey ("Saturday Night Live's" Victoria Jackson), are tenants whose "plumbing" is in constant need of attention. But Joey is also active on the disco scene, where one of his pickups is played, without credit, by Kline's offscreen wife, Phoebe Cates. Another fertile hunting ground is the local library, where Joey is finally spied in flagrante delicto in the stacks by his trusting, frumpish wife, Rosalie (Tracey Ullman). Furious at her husband's betrayal, Rosalie impulsively decides to murder Joey. But he proves amazingly impervious to her attempts at doing him in, first with the help of a bat-wielding family friend, then with a car bomb. Rosalie's weapons in the film's key scene are an overdose of sleeping pills mixed into Joey's spaghetti sauce, and a gun. The gun is first used by Devo (River Phoenix), the cleanup worker at the pizza shop, who has a crush on Rosalie, then by hired-killer cousins Harlan and Marlon (William Hurt, Keanu Reeves). Each time, Joey rises, FRIDAY THE 13TH-style, complaining first of stomach discomfort,and then, after being shot in the head, of a splitting headache. The murder plot proves so inept that dimwitted police detectives Schooner and Wiley (James Gammon, Jack Kehler) manage to bring the would-be killers to justice before the evening is out. Its tone set by the presence of comedians Ullman and Jackson (though both are oddly unfunny and subdued here), ILYTD emerges as little more than a series of blackout sketches, fragments of funny ideas, and inside jokes (in addition to Cates' presence, Kasdan himself provides one of the film's funnier moments as Devo's lawyer). The early scenes function as little more than set-ups for ILYTD's single funniest scene, Joey's repeated resurrection, and the ending is less a resolution than an attempt to find a fuzzy, feel-good moral as the film races to fadeout on a clinch between Joey and Rosalie. In the real-life case of Tony and Frances Toto, Tony lay in bed for four days after being drugged and shot. The film shows Rosalie being released the next day after Joey refuses to press charges; Frances Toto spent four years in prison after pleading guilty to criminal solicitation to commit murder. But wavering somewhat from the facts isn't the main problem here. Despite Joey's evident success as a pizza maker, ILYTD is half-baked. For Kasdan, a director whose best films--THE BIG CHILL and THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST--are set among the middle-class, the blue-collar setting may have been just too much of a stretch. The characters in ILYTD have no real dimension, remaining caricatures who, while sometimes funny, are finally too thin to sustain a feature-length film. Generally, the cast can't be faulted. As in A FISH CALLED WANDA, Kline displays a gift for physical comedy in his big scenes. But he fails to make Joey come alive in the small moments, falling back instead on crude ethnic stereotyping. Ullman, meanwhile, brings little energy to the action. The deficit is made up by supporting players--Hurt, Reeves, Phoenix, Joan Plowright (as Rosalie's murderous mom), Gammon, Kehler, and Miriam Margolyes, as Joey's own outraged mother--who all have their moments. But their efforts only make ILYTD that much more exasperating for its failure to give them anything more to do than random mugging and a few muted pratfalls. As a video rental, ILYTD has enough chuckles in it to liven up a dull evening; as a big-screen offering, it's strictly small potatoes. (Adult situations, violence.)