Ivan Reitman’s Dave has by now, I should think, shed considerable light on the problem faced by Ebert and Canby, though the latter was dimly able to perceive, if that is not too strenuous a word, the outlines of the work.
Dave placed a political meaning on our interpretation of the past, in all but the words of Auden’s (and Stravinsky’s) “Elegy for JFK”, whereas I Love You to Death is certainly more straightforward in its cynicism toward a certain form of latter-day assessment, and as if that weren’t enough, it’s founded on a news account, leaving the critics high and dry. The tragedy is they missed some of the best comedy around.
When the husband enters the living room, shot clean through the thorax and bleeding from the head, his wife recoils startled and marks time for a moment on a stack of record albums piled on the floor (there is some slippage in the direction, too, as this gag and one or two others are perhaps not filmed perfectly—compare Dobie Gillis and his girl “walking on air”, as the voiceover puts it, while a cut gives their feet treading just over the pavement). The scrungy subcultural types engaged to finish the job gawk at him, and as he’s led back upstairs his pajamas fall to his ankles.
It’s all an instantaneous comedy transcending its technique, and shows actors like William Hurt, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves to be expert farceurs, matching Joan Plowright, Tracey Ullman and Kevin Kline in an amazing ensemble, which explains a great deal.
The artist’s apology (cf. Wild Strawberries). It is rendered necessary by the satiric material involved, the kindly doctor apologizes for the prick that deflates the balloon of nonsense. He has shaken off “the primordial ooze of drugged brains” and is now a reflecting mirror of the town’s crazies, they make up a veritable cross-section of the society in which he lives, though at a small-town remove.
The absconded sex fantasist, the Brad fan, the ultra-acquisitive wife, and most enchanting of all, the billionaire skateboarder who employs most everybody else at his modem factory, where he labors on a mechanical companion. Love finds Mumford in the shape of a chronically fatigued divorcée. The two other shrinks in town are a classical portrayal of academic quiz kids. What are his credentials? The judge finds he has none. A deputy transporting him to the pokey for a brief stay asks his advice en route, despite the judgment.
A specific remedy is suggested by the doctor’s self-analysis applied to a certain juncture of memory and job history (filmed as a pushed-color flashback). He has been a tax investigator, “for the people the bard is grace, not cark.”