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If we keep shooting Joey, don’t you think he might get suspicious?

I Love You to Death

(SPOILERS) At the time, the sheer broadness of Lawrence Kasdan’s comedy came as something of a surprise; his previous picture was the well-regarded, Best Picture Oscar-nominated The Accidental Tourist, and yet, here he was, taking someone else’s script based-on-an-actual incident of a wife employing hit men to kill her unfaithful husband, and delivering a knockabout romp wallowing in farting, fornicating and foul play. Critics found it on the coarse, unfinessed side, and audiences didn’t find it all. I Love You to Death may not be a forgotten gem, but it is often very funny, in its shambolic way, and it boasts some cherishable performances from an eclectic cast.

It’s a good bet Kevin Kline’s Chico Marx Italian stereotype would do it no favours in any attempt at a reappraisal, however. Joey Boca ranks with A Fish Called Wanda’s Otto as one of the actor’s prize idiots, a crude philandering slob who is nevertheless so impervious to reason, logic and honourable attitudes, he ends up quite likeable. Kline comes equipped with imperfect English and cartoon accent, along with cheeky Catholic morals (“She is not Italian so I don’t know if that counts” he appeals to the priest of cheating on his wife). He dances not unlike Robert Picardo in Innerspace (amusingly), in a scene featuring wife Phoebe Cates (Heather Graham appears as another of Joey’s conquests). Joey also develops an unlikely attitude to his attempted murder (“When somebody shoot you in the head, it makes you think… She loves me so much she’s ready to kill me”), such that he drops all charges.

In that regard, John Kosmayer’s screenplay fails to reflect the 1983 incident involving Frances Toto on which I Love You to Death is based; Frances spent four years in prison for the attempted murder of husband Anthony. Otherwise, though, the reconciliation part is accurate (“I don’t understand why people break up over silly things. I think people just need to sit down and talk”). And such is Kasdan’s embrace of shallow farce, there’s never a great deal of emphasis on the hurt and betrayal Rosalie feels (Tracy Ullman is good as Rosalie throughout, but she’s far from the crazed, vengeful Gaga in House of Gucci) Indeed, spurred on by a blinding turn from Joan Plowright as her imperious mother Nadja – Joey “deserves to die… He leaves dirty towels everywhere…” – there’s never any danger we’ll stop to contemplate the depths of Rosalie’s love or despair. Nadja explains to her daughter that the murder will be no problem, as Americans are “killing each other left and right”; it’s a “national pastime”.

Rosalie: Why didn’t we tell me you were going to blow up the car?
Nadja: Well, I thought it would be a nice surprise for you.

That makes the early part of the picture fitfully effective, with Plowright providing most of the laughs and Joey oblivious to quite what is going on. An assault with a baseball bat singularly fails to do for him (asked for a description of the assailant, was he in disguise, he replies “Yeah, he looked like Abraham Lincoln, coming up to bat”). Next comes poisoning, via an overdose of sleeping pills in his pasta; Joey develops stomach cramps but resolves his situation momentarily (“I had a good crap. That’s all I needed”). Rosalie tries to convince him he’s going down with something – “You’ve got a virus, honey. That’s all. A virus” – and he’ll continue to cite this later, after being shot several times (“It’s killing me, this virus”; it’s amazing what people will put down to “a virus”!) And he still manages to ask for Rosalie for sex while bleeding all over his pillow.

Marlon: If we’re going to waste the dude, we ought to get paid for it, man. That’s the American way, right?

It isn’t until Devo (River Phoenix), the pizza parlour employee who is smitten with Rosalie, and who earlier unsuccessfully tried shooting Joey, requests the services of wasted cousins Harlan (William Hurt) and Marlon James (Keanu Reeves) that I Love You to Death really hits its stride. Having agreed to the transaction, the duo take a taxi to the prospective crime scene, where they proceed to debate the finer points of the act, such as which side Joey’s heart is on.

It’s difficult to believe the Coen Brothers didn’t see this at some point, as Hurt’s performance resembles an equally hirsute but denser, less morally focused Dude. It’s Reeves though, his head randomly shaved and a perma-hazed look in his eyes, who steals the show, only vaguely aware of where he is, what he’s doing and who anyone else is (“Who’s Joey?” he’s repeatedly given to ask, even following their incarceration and release). There’s his incredulous reaction to a newspaper article (“How can a kangaroo give birth to a human baby? Is that illegal? You know, having sex with a kangaroo?”), horrified flinch at the sight of an inflatable dinosaur, and the cousins’ discovery of a Reggie Jackson-signed baseball bat (upstairs, they breaking into a chant of “Reggie! Reggie!”; Rosalie takes this as a message they want reggae music played to cover the sound of the crime).

Rosalie: Oh my God! You hired drug addicts?
Devo: Who’d you expect me to hire? The Red Cross?
Nadja: They seem like very polite boys.
Rosalie: I don’t like having drug addicts in my house!
Nadja: Oh no, Rosalie. Don’t think of them as drug addicts. Think of them as killers.

Plowright is a perfect complement to this craziness. “I am very disappointed” she informs the cousins after Joey materialises in the living room, still very much alive. When the police eventually arrive and identify the bullet hole in Joey’s cranium, she is positively nonchalant (“No wonder he has headache”); attempts follow to suggest it must have been the Mafia (as Joey is Italian). She is entirely unrepentant at the station (“He is no good son of a bitch” and attempts to take the rap herself: “I am her mother. I do what I like”). Indeed, she’s only equalled by the late-stage arrival of Miriam Margolyes as Joey’s mother, commiserating with her son’s injuries one moment and hitting him over the head for cheating on Rosalie the next.

The picture walks a delicate line, one where it’s in danger of teetering into treacherous territory; this kind of self-conscious quirkiness can easily translate as obnoxious and heavy-handed, but for the most part the ensemble lifts it; even James Horner’s inflected score – he wasn’t exactly best known for comedies – is agreeable rather than excessive.

As noted, contemporary reviews tended to the negative. Colette Maude in Time Out suggested it “sinks beneath the weight of predictability” while the illustrious cast is “just one more symptom of the film’s extraordinary lack of restraint”; the picture as a whole was guilty of “crude exaggeration” and “woefully unfunny”. The Film Yearbook Volume 9’s John Harkness was a rare positive voice, though, arguing it “creates an interesting disjunction between farcical situations and delicate performances”. Further still, “If one is attuned to the film’s mood of murderous good cheer, it is among the year’s best entertainments”.

Of the picture’s reception, Kline noted “I remember when I did I Love You to Death. No one saw it in the theatre. Came and went in a week. Soapdish came and went in a week. No box office. Grand Canyon for Larry Kasdan. These are, I think, really good films. Didn’t do that great theatrically but have had a life on cable and DVDs. People come up to me and say,Oh, I loved I Love You to Death' orI loved Grand Canyon, what a great movie.’ So I have no [movies where I think], ‘it’s too bad nobody saw it.’ They found their audience eventually, but it’s too bad they didn’t see it in a theatre on a big screen”. Kasdan drew a distinction between I Love You to Death and French Kiss – another Kline-sports-European-accent project - where he hadn’t written the screenplay, and his other efforts, such that “both those experiences were for me very much what it must be like to be an actor, where you come in every day, and even though your heart is there and you really want to understand it, there's a slight distance between you and the material”.

Kline and Cates don’t represent your typical Hollywood “power couple”, in as much as they appear to preserve a reasonably balanced lifestyle (anyone who, like Cates, opted out of the Hollywood limelight, deserves the benefit of the doubt; she’s also notably singled out in recent “White Hat” production The Pentaverate, where there’s universal agreement that “She looks beautiful, by the way”, “Stunning” and “She’s a lovely lady”).

Otherwise, a number of the main players tend to attract attention for their, at best, foibles. Kasdan, I’ve already mentioned in the Body Heat review; this is the one where he has Joey’s son (played by Kasdan’s own son Jon) position himself behind his sister (Alisan Porter) and lift her up so she can take a drink from a water cooler. Which might be innocuous but for the very peculiar, suggestive way it is shot. Hurt, whose death was recently reported, was a strange fish – in terms of working method, at very least – who was called out by former partner Marlee Matlin for domestic violence and rape. Heather Graham and her strict Catholic upbringing, along with her parents’ disappointment with her choices, have done the rounds… except they refuted the stories (so was she MK’d when she hit Hollywood?)

And this was the movie where Reeves and Phoenix first encountered each other (“Then I met up with him on I Love You to Death. And I liked the guy. I wanted to work with him. He's like my older brother. But shorter”). Phoenix was brought up in “hippiesh” circumstances, and his family joined the Children of God cult. He’d give give an interview in 1991, claiming to have had sex as an infant while he was in the cult; “It was a complete and total joke” brother Joaquin said a few years back “because he was so tired of being asked ridiculous questions by the press”.

Were that the explanation, one would still wonder at the kind of person – James Gunn, perhaps – who’d think it was okay to joke about it. It also fails to account for other reported River views of the cult (“They’re disgusting… They’re ruining people’s lives”). Nor the widely acknowledged accounts of former victims, confirming exactly the activity River alleged as, pretty much, standard practice. Like Joaquin, his mother has engaged in what sounds very much like post-the-fact damage limitation; Joaquin doesn’t exactly come across as hinged in his interview at times (for actual bad-taste jokes, see his messing with the reporter on his father being dead or alive). Or ever, for that matter; at one point, he was best known for making I’m Still Here (with Cassey Affleck, his #MeToo’d former brother-in-law), a Man in the Moon exercise in persona-shift alter egos. Now he’s an Oscar winner for playing perhaps Hollywood’s most celebrated alter.

In Joaquin’s defence, then, he’s probably the current Hollywood star you’re least likely to mistake for escaping cult-based mind control unscathed. It’s been suggested Children of God/The Family – not to be confused with Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s The Family, linked to Julian Assange – founder David Brandt Berg had CIA connections. The surprise would be for a cult formed during that period, one professing aversion to Satanic behaviour and beliefs yet embracing many of the elements of Satanic cults also being established at that time, ones with CIA links, did not feature The Company as a key founding component. The notion that it was “an experiment to program young girls to become sex slaves, so that they could be used to influence powerful people in foreign countries” doesn’t sound far-fetched at all, sadly. A former member tells how, when she intimated she wanted to leave, she was sent to a camp in the Philippines with barbed wire fences and armed (Philippine military) guards, where they would break prisoners. All a bit Jim Jones sounding; in his case, the CIA connections are even reported on the Wiki page.

Along such lines, while her readings ought to be taken with the proverbial, Janine’s take is that River may have been inverted, that he came from an MKUltra’d family, and he was trying to get out; the Viper Room incident was thus a means to silence him. The Viper Room leads us to Johnny Depp, of course, currently at the centre of a very public show trial against an ex who, it has been suggested, may have been arranged and/or was his handler. Depp would contribute to the campaign for the release of the West Memphis Three, hang out with Marilyn Manson – a self-confessed minister of the Church of Satan, courtesy off Anton LaVey – and become bezzie mates with Hunter S Thompson, who has been connected with the Franklin Scandal/Cover Up, Bohemian Grove and snuff films, and is the source of one of the earliest, at the time seemingly apocryphal, adrenochrome references.

Keanu has been no stranger to rumour, gossip and innuendo, from his marriage to David Geffen (both denied it, waaaay back in 1994) to suggestions of satanic sacrifice as a means to engender success, and the circumstances of the death of his girlfriend (linking in to both Marilyn Manson and David Lynch). She in turn connects to Rose McGowan – who claimed the CIA controls Hollywood through CAA – and so returns to Children of God. Lynch worked with Graham, of course. Lynch is extolled as one of cinema’s true auteurs, and his movies are fascinating and wilfully obscure; whether he is shining a light on the darkness or simply educating us in how he/they operate – à la Kubrick – is up for debate. There’s certainly no guarantee his talent, or devotion to Transcendental Meditation, doesn’t extend to a very dark place. Michael Anderson certainly thought so, and any one even entertaining Marilyn Mason merits a look askance.

While we’re on the less-than-six degrees, Keanu and River would subsequently play gay hustler junkies in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho; Van Sant would later make To Die For with future Kubrick lead Nicole Kidman (who had that dad) and Joaquin. Some have suggested Reeves’ prominent celibacy is less a masquerade disguising a closeted life than it is reflective of a sustained and studiously monogamous relationship with H.

Which would mean there was good reason to see Marlon as one of his most authentic performances. Yes, I managed to bring it back round to I Love You to Death. The picture’s far from consistent in quality, and it’s arguably Kasdan’s first serious misstep – he’d never regain the footing or profile he had in the 1980s – but it’s a virtual textbook for cult-fave designation, with a strong cast in distinctive (oddball) roles and a whacked-out sense of humour.

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