Picks and Pans Review: I Love You to Death

updated 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman

As declarations of undying love go, Kline telling Ullman, "It's our destiny—we're doomed to be together," has its limitations. Yet it does accurately sum up the tone of this surreal, often hilarious black comedy.

Based on real events involving a couple in Allentown, Pa., in the early '80s, it is the story of a wife who repeatedly tries to murder her philandering husband, comes close and ultimately fails—only to have him not just forgive her but welcome her back. Director Lawrence Kasdan manages to make his film version of this tale almost tasteful and nearly touching.

Kline plays the husband, a Tacoma, Wash., pizza parlor owner, with a Guido Sarducci accent and blithe appeal that can be faulted only because it too closely resembles his performance in A Fish Called Wanda. As his wife, Ullman is a marvel of subtlety, even though she turns from ever-adoring to bloodthirsty in a flash once she learns of Kline's infidelity. (In a variation on the real story, Ullman is a devoted, trusting wife; in reality, Frances Toto, the Allentown wife, had a lover too.)

The esteemed British actress Joan Plowright plays Ullman's Yugoslavian mother, lampooning nasty mother-in-law jokes up the wall. A scene where she and Kline argue at a restaurant, with him yelling in Italian and her yelling in a Slavic tongue, is a marvel of audiovisual humor.

Also on hand is River Phoenix, as a pizza parlor worker with a crush on Ullman. Keanu Reeves and William Hurt (who is as invigorating a presence in small parts as he is in large ones) play two drugged-out drifters Ullman hires to finish off Kline. Victoria Jackson adds a flighty touch as the most aggressive of Kline's string of mistresses.

Sometime playwright John Kostmayer wrote the script, a blend of Pinter, Beckett and Henny Youngman. Even when things art about to go over the edge, Kostmayer remains true to his creation's zonked-out spirit and its skeptical acceptance of the notion that love conquers all—or at least can outlast it. At one point Plowright is reminiscing about her dead husband. "I miss him every day," she says. "I forget almost everything I hate about him." (R)

From Our Partners