The Ladykillers (2004)


(director/writer: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; screenwriter: based on “The Ladykillers” by William Rose; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editor: Roderick Jaynes; music: Carter Burwell; cast: Tom Hanks (Prof. G. H. Dorr), Irma P. Hall (Marva Munson), Marlon Wayans (Gawain MacSam), J. K. Simmons (Garth Pancake), Ryan Hurst (Lump), Tzi Ma (the General), George Wallace (Sheriff Wyner), Diane Delano (Mountain Girl), Stephen Root (Gudge); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ethan Coen/Joel Coen/Tom Jacobson/Barry Sonnenfeld/Barry Josephson; Touchstone Pictures; 2004)

“I think you’ll find it had some physical comedy that worked and some Coen brothers shticks and caricatures drawn that were zany enough to amuse in spurts.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoiler in first paragraph.

The Coen brothers update the critically heralded Alexander Mackendrick’s very British Ealing studios’s 1955 farce for reasons that are beyond my comprehension. They not only don’t improve on the classic, but bring it down a few notches with too much froth. But that’s not to say the uneven comedy didn’t have its inspired moments. The brothers change the London location to a sleepy small-town in Mississippi but otherwise remain faithful to the basic plotline while adding their easily recognizable signature pieces to the screenplay. They lace the film with satire on some modern day occurrences such as another look at how the Deep South’s integration is going and at the mysterious incurable disease of Irritable-Bowel Syndrome, but crap out on how to resolve their caper problem in the third act by not coming up with a funnier way for the criminal gang to dispose of their innocent hostess. The title ironically implies how the gang of five were too inept to rub out an old lady. Instead they in a buffoonish manner kill one another, as each body is dropped from a bridge to a passing barge.

Tom Hanks is on hand to do the Alec Guiness role, and in no way can Hanks’ more than adequate but not quite sizzling mannered performance be viewed as memorable. Relying more heavily on getting down an effete cultured Southern accent and showing off a gentleman’s Vandyke (looking like Colonel Sanders) rather than in reaching for a more biting social commentary on the issues at hand, Hanks is charming and disarmingly sinister with a churlish giggle but it’s more an academic exercise than inspired acting. It would be foolish to compare his performance with what dark and comedic and politically aware qualities Guiness brought to the role. If your standard for this film is comparing it to the original then I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment, but if you can possibly let the film stand on its own merits I think you’ll find it had some physical comedy that worked and some Coen brothers shticks and caricatures drawn that were zany enough to amuse in spurts.

The brothers adapted their screenplay from Ealing’s resident American writer William Rose.

The film follows along the lines of their recent “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, where the south, country music and religion form together as backdrop for a prankish caper. Both films have similar lighthearted apolitical moods and a gentle nature that pushes forth only the mildest of parody, as the view of the Bible Belt is taken from a Yankee slant (a Yankee who probably never even visited the south). The uplifting gospel musical tracks were produced by T-Bone Burnett, which was the probable reason for religion made such a large part of the story so there would be an excuse to play the music throughout (along with some hip-hop).

Hanks takes flight in his role as G. H. Dorr, Ph.D., a charlatan professor of classics and a musician specializing in the rococo period but whose main occupation is as a criminal scheming to rob a riverboat casino. He speaks eloquently in a syrupy babble and is put upon to show a deep affection for his beloved Edgar Allan Poe to help him get out of a ticklish situation. Renting a house owned by the scene stealing treasure Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), a kindhearted but slow-witted regular churchgoer and Bible-thumping black widow who has a portrait of her stern late husband staring down at her in the living room whom she regularly converses with. Marva is first spied dropping in unannounced at the small-town sheriff’s (George Wallace) office complaining about noisy youngsters and their disrespectful “hippety-hop” music. Returning home to find Professor Dorr waxing poetic on why he’s the quiet man she can trust to rent a room to, as her orange cat Pickles responds as the prof opens the door by running outside and up a tree. Marva holds him responsible to get the cat back or else she threatens to call the sheriff, as the inept prof climbs the tree proving he will do just about anything not to see the sheriff.

Dorr tells the landlord he needs the cellar for his ensemble to practice their antiquated musical instruments, which hides his real purpose to dig a tunnel from the basement to the casino’s vault. Through a newspaper ad the prof has lined up a beauty of a team–all bumblers. Pancake (J. K. Simmons) is the middle-aged so-called demolition expert, a languid unreconstructed Freedom Rider from back east who remained in the south and is always at odds with the inside man at the casino–the young black man Gawain (Marlon Wayans), who has a nasty hip-hop street attitude for profanity but turns out to be a momma’s boy posing as a badass. Their routines as bickering opposites were always hilarious. The two remaining bumblers are the tunnel expert, a former Vietnamese general (Tzi Ma), and a dumb football jock with a probable real mental deficiency, Lump (Ryan Hurst), who is hired as the goon. The General had Buster Keaton-like facial expressions that greatly supported his physical comedic role and the film’s best gag line. When asked how he as a Buddhist would handle the old lady by using its Middle Way philosophy, he emphatically states: “Float like a leaf on the river of life — and kill the old lady.” Lump’s one-joke characterization was that he was too soft to be a goon and too dumb to be anything but a criminal.

The film couldn’t sustain its comical pace for the entire feature, breathing too hard to keep its one-joke idea afloat. But there are a wide range of running gags that work in varying degrees of effectiveness from the barely funny cheap barbs aimed at Bob Jones University stemming from the landlady’s slavish but endearing devotion to the religious university, to a more subtle Greek mythical reference to hell in the form of the barge filled with garbage regularly crossing the dark river to go to the casino, and, to the best running gag, of the constant poking of fun at Hanks’ attempt to appear as a refined Southern educated gentleman in a spotless white suit while trying to keep his motley crew from each other’s throats and at the same time impressing the landlady with his gentility so that she doesn’t become suspicious.

“The Ladykillers” can be viewed as the Coen brothers homage to the idiosyncratic characters who traverse the ever changing American landscape, though it is not a vintage American film because it’s too touristy and lacking of introspection and political reality to dig beyond the surface for America’s roots. It’s a Coen brothers vehicle, which is slowly starting to mean after Fargo and The Big Lebowski something with great potential but too listlessly thrown together to be seen as more than piffle.