Something pulls you up short right at the start of this bizarre comedy: The impish glint in Tracey Ullman's eye is missing. Ullman plays Rosalie Boca, a frumpy housewife and mother of two who helps her husband, Joey (Kevin Kline), run a pizzeria in Tacoma. Rosalie is nice but dim; she doesn't notice Joey's obvious infidelities. Everyone else does, including Nadja (Joan Plowright), Rosalie's Yugoslavian mother, and Devo (River Phoenix), the spiritual young pizza chef who dotes on her. But Rosalie merely tucks her head under her husband's arm like a wounded sparrow and hides. That is, until she catches Joey red-handed with a bimbo and decides that murder (his) is preferable to suicide (hers) or divorce (theirs).
The opening credits inform us that this is a true story: John Kostmayer based Rosalie on Frances Toto, a Pennsylvania housewife who initiated five attempts to murder her husband (all failed) and then reunited with him after serving four years in prison. Ullman wisely avoids patronizing her character or nudging her into slapstick. Abetted by Owen Roizman's subdued cinematography, Ullman brings out the story's darker humor. After Joey survives Nadja's attempts to dispose of him by blowing up his car and hiring a hit man, Rosalie tries spiking Joey's pasta with sleeping pills, which merely causes an epic bout of flatulence. When a shaky Devo shoots Joey in the head, Rosalie is horrified: "I want him dead," she says, "but I don't want to hurt him." It's a laugh that Ullman mines for honest pain. Hers is a rigorous, heartfelt performance.
It's too bad that director Lawrence Kasdan (The Accidental Tourist) encourages the rest of the cast to behave like the Katzenjammer Kids. Plowright, the widow of Laurence Olivier, hams wickedly as a mother who derives her ethics from supermarket tabloids. William Hurt and Keanu Reeves — one of the odder screen couplings of recent years — have a ball as two addled druggies brought in to finish Joey off with a bullet in the chest. As Joey — rising from each attack like a modern Rasputin — the Oscar-winning Kline overworks his performance as much as his Italian accent; he's a caricature.
Shameless mugging might suit a black farce like The War of the Roses, but it's hell on the delicate fabric of a film that means to show why decent people do despicable things. Kasdan has inexplicably reduced flesh-and-blood characters to cartoons. The film ends on a punch line that turns disturbing reality into a setup for a sick joke. Only Ullman stays rooted in humanity. She seems to be in another, better movie. If nothing else, this bungled opportunity proves she deserves one.