Why is it so hard to make a good black comedy? Maybe because casual cruelty has become the most prevalent comic reflex of our time. It's everywhere: in the latest bad-taste joke of the week, in those assembly line insult-fests known as sitcoms, in comedy clubs, and, of course, in the movies, where a tone of tossed-off malice pops up in everything from the latest Police Academy installment to a cheeky romp like Nuns on the Run.
I'm not quite sure what to call this phenomenon (the Age of Dennis Miller?), but I do know making a black comedy that's really funny requires more than a single, generically ''outrageous'' situation milked over and over again. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happens in the laborious farce I Love You to Death.
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan (The Accidental Tourist, The Big Chill), the movie begins promisingly, with Kevin Kline as a ridiculously happy Italian-American pizza-shop owner who can't go for two days without cheating on his wife (Tracey Ullman). Kline plays this goombah stud with a fake Italian accent, but this isn't as corny as it sounds. The accent isn't one of those spice-ee meat-a-ball operetta jobs. If anything, Kline underplays he's easygoing and likable. The ethnic masquerade soaks up Kline's natural hamminess, freeing him to create a friendly, casual philanderer, a workaday Casanova. Then, just as you're convinced I Love You to Death is going to be a satire of recognizable human behavior, the movie turns wacky, stagy, mechanically over-the-top. It becomes a one-joke movie about a guy who quite literally cannot be killed.
Let me explain. Kline's Joey Boca has been leading a life of unfettered bliss. He makes his pizzas, flirts with every girl in the shop, and takes frequent breaks to visit the scuzzy apartment building he and his wife own. There, he's in constant demand to, uh, fix the plumbing in the apartments of all the pretty young female tenants. To Joey, fooling around is a justified passion he thinks it's his right as an Italian and an American. After all, he works all day and loves his family. Why should his natural appetites go unrewarded?
What's funny about Joey's feisty guiltlessness is that it's a satiric extension of the way so many men rationalize adultery. Clearly, he deserves a comeuppance, and he gets one when Tracey Ullman's trusting, devoted Rosalie discovers the truth. Goaded by her Yugoslavian mother (Joan Plowright), who's like a vengeful gloss on Aunt Lotte from Stranger Than Paradise, she decides to bump off her husband. Only she can't do it. Sleeping pills, baseball bats, even guns nothing can kill the guy. With a bullet lodged in his head, he just takes to his bed, feeling as if he has the flu. Joey, it seems, has too much life in him.
This is all supposedly based on an actual incident. But instead it plays like some leaden supernatural sitcom. When Joey starts demonstrating his near-bionic survival abilities, there are really only two possible responses: ''Say, what?'' or ''Didn't I see that on The Carol Burnett Show?''
Yet Kasdan isn't just fooling around here. Those fake accents are the giveaway he thinks he's making the Moonstruck of mayhem. I Love You to Death is strenuously unclever, and Kasdan has directed it in the same style of tasteful claustrophobia he used for The Accidental Tourist. The more that happens, the more the movie. . .just. . .gets. . .slower. I started to tune out around the time William Hurt and Keanu Reeves showed up as a pair of stoned-hippie assassins who look like graduates of the Mickey Rourke Grooming Academy. There's absolutely nothing to their performances but the lousy haircuts.