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Mob Mentality 

"You Kill Me" is a gangster movie that mixes comedy and drama with the aim of satisfying all tastes.

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If Bush were a more serious president than he is, he might consider replacing one of his cabinet members with Ben Kingsley. No other contemporary actor so easily gives legitimacy, weight and humanity to an otherwise empty ceremony.

In "You Kill Me," Kingsley comes reasonably close to impersonating a believable gangster in a substance-abuse program — no easy feat, considering a public fattened on many similar premises, from "Analyze This" to "The Sopranos." He can switch on a dime from comically menacing to downright menacing, and even, despite the compelling evidence that this is supposed to be a comedy, get sympathy for his portrayal of a man struggling with booze. He can't quite save this halfhearted movie, however, an overly sweet cocktail of half-hearted jokes and melodrama.

"You Kill Me" has the audacity of the old slapstick classics, but the wit and daring of an average stand-up comic. It supposes that Frank (Kingsley), an alcoholic hit man from Buffalo, is sent by his employers to dry up in San Francisco AA meetings. In a matter of weeks he's not only made a new friend in his sponsor (Luke Wilson), but also falls in love with a gorgeous — and terribly, terribly lonely — advertising saleswoman (Téa Leoni), who helps him get back on his feet.

Frank's initial attempts to deal with his problem provide some easy laughs at the expense of the well-known rituals of AA, where he tries to live up to his name by talking about the effect of alcohol on his job. It's supposed to be uproarious. You may hear a kind chuckle in response. Soon, however, romance ferments and trouble brews, and the movie veers between its gentle stabs of humor and serious daytime soap material like a drunk behind the wheel.

"You Kill Me" is terribly mild. The reason, one suspects, is not focus groups or lack of talent, but old-fashioned Hollywood timidity. Director John Dahl and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely don't seem to want to think hard or offend anyone. Their characters are painfully obvious, provided solely for narrative purposes. The rival gangs are for tension; Frank's gay AA sponsor is comic relief. "You Kill Me" is an easy diversion — a killer of, if anything, time. But though it may be quick, it's not so painless. (R) 92 min. S

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