Director John Dahl keeps a firm hand on Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's razor-sharp hit-man-in-rehab comedy, which mines the same dark vein as GROSS POINTE BLANK (1997) and MATADOR (2005), and the payoff is both slily funny and startlingly fresh.
Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley) comes from a close-knit Polish family in Buffalo, so naturally he went into the family business with his Uncle Roman (Philip Baker Hall). That's "Family" with a capital "F" — the snow-plow business is just the legitimate end of the low-level racketeering that keeps them in cold-weather gear and dingy little frame houses. Frank is very good at two things: killing people and drinking. Unfortunately, the drinking has finally gotten in the way of the killing. Roman tolerates Frank's failings until he botches the murder of rival mob boss O'Leary (Dennis Farina); Frank was supposed to kill him before he could get on a New York-bound train to forge an alliance with a wealthy Chinese gang, but instead passed out in the parking lot. Roman, furious, ships him off to San Francisco to sober up ("You think I can't buy a beer in San Francisco?" Frank asks morosely) and appoints creepy associate Dave (Bill Pullman) to monitor his progress. Dave finds Frank an apartment, directs him to an AA group and finds him a job with mortician Doris (wryly played by Alison Sealy-Smith). Neat, taciturn, smaller-than-life Frank doesn't take naturally to 12-step: too much sharing, too much caring, way too much crying. But with Dave poised to tattle if Frank falters, he sticks with it, eventually finding a sponsor in gay toll-collector Tom (Luke Wilson) and meeting the woman of his dreams at work: High-strung, ultra-successful media buyer Laurel (Tea Leoni) marches in with a pair of bowling shoes for her late stepfather and reveals an alluring mordant streak by confessing that she couldn't find his, so she stole a pair from a bowling alley and doesn't care if Frank has to break the corpse's toes to make them fit. If only there weren't a simmering mob war in Buffalo calling him back home, Frank's life would be, if not perfect, then pretty damned good.
Hit-man comedies are a thriving subgenre and Markus and McFeely know the territory. But they also have a sharp eye for both the regimented absurdity and the strength of 12-step rituals: Frank's first share — he wants to stop drinking so he can resume the work he loves, murder for hire — is a minor marvel, as is the group's reaction, equal parts stunned and supportive. As to Frank's amends, well, they're priceless. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh