Love You to Death
The sound of an accordion fills a pizza parlour; the camera pans from a portrait of John F. Kennedy up to one of the Pope. It is instantly clear that I Love You to Death joins a string of late '80s crime comedies with a strong accent of ethnic, urban American culture. Other films in this cycle include Jonathan Demme's spirited Married to the Mob (1988), Susan Seidelman's curious Cookie (1989) and Paul Morrissey's marvellous Spike of Bensonhurst (1989).
All these films share certain elements. First, there is a hefty dose of kitsch, supposed bad taste – overdecorated homes, sing-along tunes from the old country. Then, crucial to the plot, there is an almost primitive code of honour – be it to family or the mob – that must be followed to the end. And finally, there is the strange modern world, in which the plot events take place anachronistically so, well beyond the reach of law and order.
Pizza artist Joey Boca (Kevin Kline, sporting a rather uncertain Italian accent) cheats prolifically on unknowing, Polish wife, Rosalie (Tracey Ullman). Director Lawrence Kasdan elaborates on this situation for a while, simply but skilfully adding a host of other characters.
These include Devo (River Phoenix), a retro flower child who adores Rosalie and tries to warn her about Joey's infidelities; and Nadja (Joan Plowright), Rosalie's mother, who has a talent for mechanical engineering and a stern temperament that drives Joey slowly crazy.
Eventually, Rosalie discovers the truth. In this type of film, there can only be one punishment for such an offence, and it must be carried out personally by the aggrieved party – with a little help from her mother and her young friend.
So, these nervous but committed amateurs launch a series of bungling murder attempts. Nadja, in particular, comes into her own as a would-be cold-blooded killer. She explains to the police: "I'm her mother. I can do anything."
Many contemporary movies ingeniously mingle elements from several different genres, and this one is no exception. When Joey starts wandering around the house, a little groggy but otherwise seemingly oblivious to the several bullets he has in him by that stage, his indestructibility is a humourous reminder of all those horror films in which the monster can never be entirely finished off.
Even more over-the-top are the apprentice hit-men, Harlan (William Hurt) and Marlon (Keanu Reeves) – two goofy drug fiends in the mould of Cheech and Chong who can barely remember their own names, let alone what they have been paid to do. The knockabout violence and mayhem they bring to the film creates some great laughs.
As you may have guessed, I Love You to Death is predominantly a black comedy. But, even here, Kasdan tries to have it two ways, by having Joey ultimately rethink his marriage to Rosalie. The film is at its best, however, when it maintains its cynical insouciance, founded on a cheerful awareness that the most normal people, in their everyday lives, are capable of committing unspeakable acts.
© Adrian Martin May 1990