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August 26, 2014

I Love You to Death

by Franz Patrick


I Love You to Death (1990)
★★★ / ★★★★

Joey Boca (Kevin Kline), a pizza parlor owner, confesses to a priest that he had cheated on his wife, Rosalie (Tracey Ullman), about a dozen times—“give or take”—in the past two weeks. Joey claims that although he loves looking at women and being physically intimate with them, it does not mean that he no longer feels anything for his wife, readily available for his every need.

When Rosalie is returning books to the library, she catches her husband feeling up another woman behind a shelf and hears talk of going to a private place to mess around. Heartbroken and outraged, Rosalie informs her very Yugoslavian mother, Nadja (Joan Plowright), of what she has just witnessed and the duo plot to kill Joey for his indiscretions.

Loosely based on a true story in Allentown, Pennsylvania, “I Love You to Death,” directed by Lawrence Kasdan, is so vibrant in its portrait of husband and wife that the darkly comedic elements work wonders when it probably should not have if the level of humor and timing had been off by a degree. And given its subject matter, it certainly easily could have been exploitative but underneath its twists and turns, it has a heart that the material is not afraid to acknowledge.

While its premise is reasonably thin, some may say gimmicky, it is a joy to watch because the actors seem really excited in playing their roles. Plowright is especially hilarious as Joey’s mother-in-law who looks for ways to antagonize him. She delivers her brilliant one-liners with such precision that we forget about her character’s age and the stereotypes that go along with it.

One of the best scenes is an argument the two share in a restaurant as Joey insults Nadja in Italian and Nadja curses at him in her native language. The neat thing is that although most of us would not be able to understand their remarks, it matters not: we feel their distain for one another by reading their facial expressions, intonations in their voices, and the way they use their hands as if they wanted to grab and pummel each other.

After one failed attempt after another in getting rid of Joey the adulterer scum, the mother-daughter’s plot becomes increasingly complicated as familiar and not-so-familiar faces begin to visit the house to finish off what they started. Devo (River Phoenix), an employee in the pizzeria, has a crush on Rosalie and claims he would do absolutely anything to win her affections. Devo is an interesting ingredient because Phoenix downplays his character’s sense of humor. Instead of attempting to match Nadja’s wit and sass, he is more about playing up ideas in his head with very poor execution.

However, the film hits a few snags in terms of pacing. When drug addicts, Harlan (William Hurt) and Marlon (Keanu Reeves), enter the equation, they are quite amusing initially. But as they spend more time in front of the camera, they begin to overstay their welcome because their type of humor relies more on slapstick rather than irony.

Finally, while the majority of the picture embraces a light-hearted tone, there are moments when it is dead serious. While the level of seriousness may vary for everyone, for me, I started to consider that maybe it is time for Rosalie and company to send Joey to the hospital when blood starts to flow.

“I Love You to Death,” written by John Kostmayer, is effective because absurd and bizarre elements are matched by enthusiastic performances. Philandering spouses will get a kick out of this.

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