One of the weirdest films in Lawrence Kasdan’s already very weird filmography, I Love You To Death is a dark comedy revolving around Joey Boca, played by Kevin Kline, an Italian-American pizza chef who spends his days working in his family restaurant and his nights chasing young women while his long suffering wife Rosalie, played by Tracey Ullman, takes care of the business and looks after the household. Upon finding out that Joey has been cheating on her for years, however, Rosalie vows to take her revenge and murder him with the help of her mother Nadja (Joan Plowright), her waiter Devo Nod (River Phoenix) and two hired assassins (Keanu Reeves and William Hurt). As the team rotate through a series of aborted attempts – hitting Joey with a baseball bat, cutting his brakes, choking him, shooting him, poisoning him – his body becomes more prostrated, emasculated and cuckolded, until it feels as if the murder attempts are Rosalie’s own version of having an affair. Certainly, they force her into a new intimacy with other people in her life – both friends and strangers – whom she confides and trusts in much as Joey confides and trusts in his own vast ensemble cast of lovers and sexual contacts.
Although there are only a few key characters, they’re all drawn very broadly, to the point where the film almost plays as a series of types, caricatures or comic sketches. In the wake of A Fish Called Wanda, American-British casts seemed to have been in vogue, but that’s complicated here by the film’s fixation on accents, with Ullman playing an American, Plowright playing an Eastern European and Hurt and Reeves playing Californian slackers. At the heart of it all is Kline, who made accents his stock in trade around this time – his next film with Kasdan would be French Kiss – and the film stands or falls upon how funny or plausible you find Kline’s accent shtick, as well as his performance here as a whole. Personally, I’ve never found Kline’s accents that fun, just because what makes his voice so compelling is its mobile, protean quality, the sense that it is always on the verge of an impersonation. While it’s not hard to see why it’s tempting to give him an accent, then, that gesture also seems to fix and contain what makes his voice so unusual in the first place, which is perhaps why the funniest moments here are those when he breaks his accent, whether intentionally or inadvertently.
At a more general level, the proliferation of accents often makes it seem as if every character and actor is in a different style of comedy, or in a different comedy full stop. It wouldn’t be hard to believe that the key scenes were filmed totally separated, or that John Kostmayer’s screenplay was put together from a series of shorter films. At times it feels as if we’re watching a longer episode of The Tracey Ullman Show, since Ullman is the glue that holds it all together, orchestrating and commentating on each sketch as she moves from one part of the film to the next. At the same time, Reeves and Hurt, in particular, feel like they’re performing a series of outtakes from the Bill and Ted films, while Joan Plowright’s mannered style, combined with the premise of the film, often makes this seem like an American remake of Peter Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers as well.
With such a diverse range of styles, the strongest moments tend to coalesce around farcical, physical comedy. In fact one of the main issues with the film is that the physical comedy doesn’t continue long enough – and isn’t allowed to reach a real extremity – before pathos kicks in, as if Kasdan were trying to embrace the absurdity of it all but also hedge his bets at the same time. In any case, only a hyperactively farcical vibe in which everything is incongruous can hold the film together at all, so jarring are these different comic styles, which is perhaps why it reminded me of the more plastic tail end of the screwball era, with Arsenic and Old a particularly emphatic touchstone. Only Phoenix really manages to transcend that – he had an irreducible authenticity and vulnerability in front of the camera, not unlike that of James Dean, that’s actually accentuated by all the artifice around him here. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he plays the only character acting out of love in the entire film.
As with Arsenic and Old Lace, too, the comedy is too manic, plastic and psychotic to ever be truly funny. At moments, that plays as a snarky little parody of feminism that recalls the revanchism of Scent of a Woman, Pretty Woman and other early 90s romantic comedies. Yet I Love You To Death also forms part of a more specific trend of 90s murder comedies that fixated on the conflation of criminality and celebrity. Bookended by Throw Momma from the Train and Drowning Mona – and peaking with Serial Mom – these films were usually about renegotiating the woman’s role in the family, and frequently used murder as the pretext for a parodic comedy of remarriage. Part of me is tempted to say that Drowning Mona was a late parodic riff on the formula, but these films felt parodic of their premises from the very beginning, which is perhaps why I Love You To Death resists ever settling into a single or stable tone for any great length of time. Certainly, the ending manages to be both “serious” and to defy you to take it seriously as well, which makes me wonder whether “criticising” it seriously is also somewhat beside the point. Suffice to say that its strangeness and the sheer bizarre fact of its existence (especially with this particular cast) hasn’t diminished some twenty-five years later.