Monday, April 06, 2015

Loving Someone to Death

"When somebody shoot you in the head, it make you think."

Joey (Kevin Kline)

The basic plot of "I Love You to Death" — which premiered 25 years ago today — was that Joey (Kevin Kline), a successful pizzeria operator, was cheating on his wife Rosalie (Tracey Ullman), and Rosalie decided that Joey didn't deserve to live. Her mother (Joan Plowright) already felt that way.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the story was like "an acting class in which the students are presented with impossible situations and asked how they would handle them." But this one wasn't hypothetical. The movie was inspired by the true story of a woman from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who tried to kill her husband for cheating on her. "After the murder attempt failed," Ebert recalled, "the husband refused to press charges against his wife because he felt she had done the right thing."

That was pretty much what happened in the movie, demonstrating that truth really is stranger than fiction. Well, except for where it happened. The movie took place in the state of Washington. (I guess it could have been set in Fate, Texas.)

Rosalie, who had been convinced that Joey was faithful to her, was crushed when she learned that he was really a womanizer who had been cheating on her for years, but she didn't want to divorce him and give him the freedom to run around with anyone at any time. She recruited the help of her mother, who, as I say, had concluded that Joey didn't deserve to live, and a young co–worker who was infatuated with her (River Phoenix). And they began to discuss the ways and means of doing Joey in.

"In the movie version," wrote Ebert, "this story is developed into a domestic black comedy of droll and macabre dimensions. And it is told in a series of scenes in which most of the characters are either lying to each other, lying to themselves or incapable of coherent thought. The few moments of honesty and lucidity have a fascination all their own since under those conditions the characters tend to become tongue–tied with embarrassment."

I guess my favorite such scene came near the end, when the investigating police officers, who had been told that Joey was sick with a virus, discovered he was bleeding in bed from a head wound. Rosalie, her mother and her co–worker stumbled all over each other to explain that they had "found" Joey in the yard, bleeding from an apparent gunshot wound. Rather than call for an ambulance, as innocent people in such a situation would be expected to do, they said they carried Joey inside and put him in his bed.

They also recruited a couple of constantly stoned hit men (William Hurt and Keanu Reeves), whose efforts to kill Joey were clumsy and ham–handed — at best.

But then it appeared that they had, indeed, killed Joey, and Rosalie experienced a case of buyer's remorse, I guess you could say.

Joey, though, turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to kill and came walking up behind his wife, who was weeping and praying before the religious artifacts in her home.

At that point, the movie became an outrageous dark comedy. It had its moments up to that point, but it really took off in the last 30 minutes or so.

Describing the guilty trio, Ebert said their confrontation with the police was "the movie's most difficult and intriguing scene." Ebert wrote. "It takes place almost entirely in the eyes of the actors, and in their pauses and silences and is an exquisite exercise in guilty embarrassment. It is an almost impossible scene to pull off, but somehow they accomplish it."

The whole story was almost impossible to pull it off, but, in Ebert's own words, "somehow they accomplish[ed] it."