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Road to recovery Winnipeg stands in for Buffalo in a film that gracefully lampoons America's penchant for 12-step programs

Ignore Buffalo for a second. Sure, John Dahl's drolly delightful "You Kill Me" is set here but was filmed in Winnipeg, whose snow-covered residential streets double eerily well for North Buffalo's.

And yes, co-writer Christopher Markus -- a former Buffalo boy not many years gone from post-teen night duty at Elmwood Avenue happy spots -- knows full well that there's no Polish mob in Buffalo. And that there's no Irish mob, either, in killer competition with them for the local snowplow business.

The Buffalo that occupies a full half of "You Kill Me" is a fantasy Buffalo -- the sort of Buffalo a very clever smart-aleck native son would devise about the city he grew up in, especially if he were half Polish and his Hollywood writing partner is Irish-American.

No, what makes "You Kill Me" such a sneaky but total comic triumph is that this movie is the great American Alcoholics Anonymous comedy thus far, and that is no small thing to be in a country where "recovery" is very slowly and quietly poised to become the next great American religion. It has, after all, gained ground steadily in Hollywood over the past two decades and Hollywood is where a lot of things happen first in America -- or at least significantly early (public expressions of racial and sexual tolerance, for instance).

I first saw "You Kill Me" a couple months ago and I'm still chuckling and shaking my head in delight and wonderment at the scene where Polish hit man Frank Falenczyk stands up at an AA meeting, says he's Frank and an alcoholic ("Hi Frank"), that he kills people for a living, and that alcohol has interfered with his job performance. Whereupon no one buzzes about Frank's decidedly dark profession for a second because unusual behavioral admissions are not unusual at AA meetings and, well, such side issues aren't what they're all there to help each other with.

And that is what makes "You Kill Me" funny BEYOND laughs: It is both wonderfully irreverent and extraordinarily respectful about 12-step programs and the dogged business of "recovery." You get the humor beyond chuckles and guffaws -- humor for the soul -- by possessing grace. This movie's got it.

The plot? Ah yes. That.

Frank (Ben Kingsley) is the aforementioned bullet-headed Polish hit man in Buffalo who is having notable difficulty doing his work because he can't keep away from the vodka bottle. In particular, he passes out in his car one night before he's able to knock off a slimeball named O'Leary, the Irish mob kingpin muscling his way into his family's snowplow rulership of the Queen City. (The movie, of course, never bothers to mention that we have municipalities, large and small, whose key civic duty for five months a year is that very thing.)

Frank's uncle, the crime family boss, is furious but not so furious that he bumps off his irresponsible nephew. Instead, he sends him to San Francisco to dry out.

Where Frank gets a job in a mortuary. Not entirely surprisingly, he has a gift for dealing with the dead, having spent his professional life until now helping people get that way. In the bargain, he falls in love with the mourner of one of his "clients."

And that's where "You Kill Me" is close to inspired. Frank's lady love is an utter original but a relative of what American movies presented so well in the screwball comedy era. She's a TV ad woman (she sells time, she says ruefully), a decidedly urban job virtually requiring skepticism, if not outright cynicism. On top of that, she's no dewy maiden but a thoroughgoing grown-up with, one senses, many volumes of experience with rotten, worthless or merely substandard men. To put the cherry on top of her perfection for Frank, she's a woman with just enough crummy life experience to be open to almost anything, if it means she can do it with a life partner who actually makes her happy.

This, I tell you, is a movie relationship you can get behind.

And now the best news -- Frank is played by Ben Kingsley, the intense, slightly mad-eyed actor who can convey more homicidal intent with the rigid set of his shoulders than most actors can do waving automatic weapons around. And his newfound, up-for-anything girlfriend, is played by Tea Leoni, who would be our new Jean Arthur or Barbara Stanwyck if American movies in general were still smart enough to know we needed one (which they aren't.) So Leoni has to settle for being the smartest and sexiest tough girl you'd probably ever run into on the prowl at a funeral.

Kingsley, you should know, is said to be largely responsible for plucking Markus and Stephen McFeely's script out of cloudland limbo which means that, on top of his performing talents, he's got a pretty shrewd eye for movies worth making.

Because this is a movie directed by John Dahl, a master of the dark and quirky B-movie ("The Last Seduction," "Red Rock West," "Joy Ride"), the rest of the cast is choice too: Luke Wilson as Frank's gay AA sponsor, Philip Baker Hall as Frank's exasperated and cornered mobster uncle, Bill Pullman as an obnoxious go-getter, and Dennis Farina as the villainous Irish mobster O'Leary (Don't laugh too quickly. An "O'Leary" isn't exactly typecasting for Farina but he's from Chicago, which means his own ultra-flat pronunciation of A's as he talks is pretty close to what one might hear in the popcorn line in Cheektowaga or the University Plaza -- which would be pronounced, Buffalo-style, as Pl-eee-a-zah.)

Writers Markus and McFeely previously won an Emmy for "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" and are the script-kings of Narnia at the movies. "You Kill Me" was their first big "we can do it, by God" script together.

The wonderfully wry movie proves that, by God, they were right.



>Movie Review

You Kill Me
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Ben Kingsley, Tea Leoni, Luke Wilson, Philip Baker Hall and Dennis Farina in John Dahl's very black comedy about an alcoholic Polish hit man from Buffalo who goes to San Francisco to join Alcoholics Anonymous and fall in love. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.

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