At the age of twelve, I watched reports on the making of I Love You to Death after dinner on Entertainment Tonight as the hosts discussed the controversies surrounding its production. Watching the movie now, it is hard to believe that it could have been the source of any controversies, but that disconnection proves helpful in noting some of the changes in media, entertainment, and perception that have occurred since 1990. Twenty-five years later, I Love You to Death remains an unmistakable product of its time. A highly successful director of the 1980’s, Lawrence Kasdan, guides a diverse and talented cast, including two Oscar winners and two Oscar nominees, through an energetic, dark comedy based on an actual criminal case, wherein a wife tried to kill her husband several times. From its director to its remarkable ensemble cast and the way it handles its subject matter, this movie could not have happened at any other point in recent history.
I Love You to Death follows a string of successes throughout the 1980’s that began with Kasdan penning the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Following these collaborations, Kasdan went on to write and direct some of the biggest critical hits of the decade including Body Heat, The Big Chill, and The Accidental Tourist. A year after this movie in 1991, Kasdan’s Grand Canyon attempted to address and remedy the hangover brought about by the over-indulgences of the 1980’s, but I Love You to Death’s perverse and frenetic atmosphere feels like the last round of drinks shared at end of the party the night before.
As the party guests, this group of actors remains one of my favorite ensemble casts in any movie. Kevin Kline, at the height of his powers, operates in a broadly comic range that he has rarely reached with such zeal or success before or since. Released in the final year of Tracy Ullman’s acclaimed U.S. comedy/variety series, this movie allows Ullman to deliver one of her most natural and nuanced performances. As the emotional heart of the film, River Phoenix’s charisma and generosity as a performer combine to bring out the best from his fellow actors and allow him shine without being the center of attention. As Yugoslavian mechanic grandmother Mama Nadja, Joan Plowright builds a warm and curiously engaging character out of a role that could have been just a plot device or a punchline.
Recently, I realized that William Hurt’s character is a spiritual cousin to Jeff Bridges’ The Dude in The Big Lebowski. As leading men in the 1980’s, both Hurt and Bridges played serious yuppie types, so watching them play bedraggled, middle-aged hippies at the fringes of society creates a jolt of unpredictability that, in this case, creates some of the movie’s most satisfying comedy. For Keanu Reeves’ detractors, the role of a quiet, drug-addled weirdo is right up there with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the list of roles he was born to play. For his defenders, Reeves gives a layered comic performance on par with his later work in films like 2009’s Thumbsucker.
Kasdan and writer John Kostmayer take significant liberties with the actual criminal case to create a propulsive comedic tone that flirts with the darker elements involved, but ultimately keeps the overall mood light and amusing. Within just a few years, cases very similar to the one on which this movie is based became the source of intense media attention. The level of societal and media obsession with cases like John and Lorena Bobbitt, Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, and, eventually, the O.J. Simpson murder trial created a new kind of entertainment that paved the way for both the ubiquity of the 24 hour news cycle and the dominance of “reality” TV. None of those cases became the source of a movie like I Love You to Death because in a way, they all unraveled in real time as a new kind of mixed-media live theater. Kasdan and Kostmayer thread a timely satire of the violence, tabloid culture, and desire for fame present in modern American life throughout their movie as a possible warning for what was to come. Despite what came after, I Love You to Death survives as a unique and memorable comedy that also offers a snapshot of early stages of the interplay between the news media and mainstream entertainment.
- John Parsell