Though she's a big fan of the Coen Brothers, Judge Diane Wild found that The Ladykillers did not slay her.
The greatest criminal minds of all time have finally met their match.
If these are the greatest criminal minds, the world is a much safer place than the six o'clock news would have us believe. Joel and Ethan Coen's films are always interesting even when they don't quite work, so is The Ladykillers an interesting hit or an interesting miss?
Facts of the Case
Tom Hanks plays Professor G.H. Dorr, PhD, a mysterious stranger who lands on the doorstep of Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) to rent a room. He claims his interest in her root cellar is for its use as a rehearsal space for the Renaissance music ensemble he leads, for which the dirt wall acoustics are ideal. "I can barely contain my glee," says a serene Dorr. "Oh, you containin' it just fine," Mrs. Munson replies.
In fact, Dorr is the leader of a gang of inept criminals who intend to tunnel from his landlady's home to the underground vault of a nearby riverboat casino. His cohorts include Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man), who nods happily when Dorr describes him as "a Jack of all trades, master of none"; The General (Tzi Ma, The Quiet American), who once built tunnels for the Viet Cong; Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans, Requiem for a Dream), a trash-talking janitor at the targeted casino; and Lump (Ryan Hurst Lone Star State of Mind), the idiot football player who will do the grunt work.
Despite accidental explosions, dissent in the ranks, and one nasty case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, their biggest obstacle turns out to be bumping the nosy old lady off.
We don't usually look to the Coen brothers for remakes, unless you count the deliciously skewed, nearly unrecognizable take on Homer's "The Odyssey" that was O Brother Where Art Thou. But The Ladykillers is a remake of a more conventional kind—an update of a 1955 film starring Alec Guinness.
Tom Hanks plays the Guinness role, becoming a silver-tongued pseudo-professor who never uses one syllable when a dozen will do. His parents apparently felt the same way, naming him Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, though he happily answers to G.H. or The Professor as long as they are spoken with adequate obsequiousness.
His speeches are labyrinthine masterpieces of hot air, and Hanks seems to be channeling Satan, Mark Twain, and an asthmatic rabbit all at the same time. This is not a subtle performance. But then, this is not a subtle movie.
The Ladykillers is an over-the-top, but not usually laugh-out-loud, comedy. The characters are too cartoonish, except the delightful Marva Munson, who teeters precariously into caricature territory but never quite topples. Forget the money heist—Irma P. Hall steals the movie. Simmons and Wayans have outstanding moments, but Hall is the one who carries it.
The best comedy seems effortless. In The Ladykillers, we all but see the sweat as each character tries to be more eccentric than the other. The script awkwardly combines dark humor with fart jokes while Dorr's elaborate speeches contrast with MacSam's obscenity-laden quips. There's a fine line between funny and annoying, and the movie crosses it a few times. This is a straightforward story with a comedic payoff at the end that works, but would work better if the script didn't try so hard.
Though Dorr's origins are shadowy, the only real mystery in the movie is why any of the gang would follow him. His leadership is as inept as Pancake's attempts to use explosives. The extreme stupidity of most of the gang explains much, but also seems like a too-easy way out. As much as I generally like him, Hanks is the weak link, with his purposely mannered and flamboyant performance. There's not enough charm, not enough to make us believe that the other characters would believe in him, and he's ultimately more weird than witty.
The Ladykillers benefits from some Coen trademarks, like a combination of gorgeous and unconventional shots. One scene, shot from inside Lump's football helmet to show his point of view, is disorienting and fun. There are also unexpected layers and jokes, often stemming from the Biblical subtext of Dorr as a devil, and also the recurring in-joke that black Mrs. Munson's favorite charitable cause is Bob Jones University, apparently a bastion of racism. She is obviously unaware, and her black pride leads her to abhor the n-word laden "hippity-hop" music: "2000 years after Jesus, 30 years after Martin Luther King, in the age of Montel, sweet Lord of mercy, is that where we at?"
Set in modern-day Mississippi, The Ladykillers has an old-fashioned look that is reminiscent of O Brother's depression-era origins, plus a gospel soundtrack that rivals its film sibling's popular bluegrass soundtrack.
This marks the first time the Coen brothers share producing and directing credits—usually Joel is credited as the director and Ethan as the producer. But following the disappointing Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers marks another of the Coen brothers' departures from top form.
Though it falls somewhat flat comedically, The Ladykillers is technically excellent. The set design and cinematography are beautiful, and fully captured in the pristine anamorphic transfer. The gospel music interludes and a couple of explosions make full use of the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound (also available in French), and the dialogue comes across crisply and clearly.
My favorite little extras are often not about the movie itself—not those featurettes that sound scripted by a spin doctor—but those delving into some obscure aspect touched on in the movie. In this case, it's a featurette about the real-life guitar maker who created the Renaissance instruments used in the film. Danny Ferrington's infectious enthusiasm turns the 10-minute profile about a master luthier into the best extra. That's a backhanded compliment though. It should really be an entertaining throw-away amidst other, more substantial extras.
As it is, there's not much more on the disc. The outtake reel is less than two minutes of Irma P. Hall slapping Marlon Wayans, which has some sadistic appeal but isn't quite funny enough. The deleted musical scenes show two full performances by the fabulous Abbot Kinney Lighthouse Choir featured in the film. You can also play the DVD on your PC and follow along with the Coen's script. But there's no commentary or the usual behind-the-scenes featurettes—little for Coen brothers fans to really sink their teeth into.
Despite my reservations, The Ladykillers deserves a second life on DVD after poor box-office results. This isn't a must-have disc for your collection unless it leaves a hole in your Coen brothers' shelf, but the story is entertaining and with enough laughs to justify its existence. Forget Fargo, forget The Big Lebowski. Leave your Coen expectations at home when you go to the video store and you likely won't be disappointed.
If the Coens were anyone else, I'd pronounce a definite not guilty for this reasonably entertaining comedy. But slipping out of my judge's robes and putting on my teacher's hat, they have not fulfilled their potential with The Ladykillers and are sentenced write "we will create a great film next time" on the board 50 times.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• "The Slap Reel" outtakes
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