Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: The Ladykillers (2004)

The Ladykillers (2004)
Directed by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Written by:  Joel Coen & Ethan Coen based on the movie written by William Rose.
Starring: Tom Hanks (Professor G.H. Dorr), Irma P. Hall (Marva Munson), Marlon Wayans (Gawain MacSam), J.K. Simmons (Garth Pancake), Tzi Ma (The General), Ryan Hurst  (Lump Hudson), Diane Delano (Mountain Girl), George Wallace (Sheriff Wyner), John McConnell  (Deputy Sheriff), Jason Weaver (Weemack Funthes), Stephen Root (Fernand Gudge), Lyne Odums  (Rosalie Funthes).

There are many flaws in the Coen brothers remake of The Ladykillers – but I am willing to overlook almost all of them because I love Tom Hanks and Irma P. Hall in the film so much. Like the film they made the year before, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers is not a film I had revisited since I first saw in theaters – 10 years ago now. It is undeniable a minor effort on the part of the brothers – an effort at a more mainstream comedy – and one that feels a little too tame by comparison to their other work – at times more like someone trying to be the Coens than the Coens themselves. Yet like Intolerable Cruelty, taken as a movie unto itself, The Ladykillers is a hell of a lot of fun – it’s a disappointment more when compared to their other films rather than a film itself. The film is nowhere near great – but I had fun watching it.

The film stars Tom Hanks as Professor G.H. Dorr, a Southern gentleman who looks and sounds like a demented Colonel Sanders. He wants to rent a room from the kindly old African American woman Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) – he says because he’s on sabbatical and wants a quiet place to do his work. In reality, he wants the rent a room because from her root cellar it will be easy to tunnel into a nearby casino and steal their money. For his purposes he has enlisted a crack team of idiots played by Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma and Ryan Hurst. Mrs. Munson is a church going lady – a kindly, trusting old woman who doesn’t realize what the hell is going on in her basement – but wouldn’t approve if she did. She makes herself a nuisance at the police station, and donates generously to the Church and Bob Jones University.

The movie is basically made up of scenes of the would be criminals tunneling into the casino and simultaneously trying to hide what they are doing from Mrs. Munson. About half way into the movie, they get the money – but then a series of strange things keep happening, and one by one the men die – and are disposed of on a passing garbage ship. Such is life in a Coen brother movie – if you sin, you’re going to pay for it.

The reason to see the movie is the performances by Hanks and Hall. Hanks has always been a fine actor – and he normally excels at playing the Everyman – the man everyone wishes was their father because he’s so kind and upstanding. Once in a while though, he takes on a completely different kind of role and it makes me wish he’d do so more often – and his performance here is one of them. His character talks like no person in the history of world does – he has a strange laugh, an unplaceable accent, and is given to poetic flights of fancy – which often leave everyone around him perplexed. He tries hard to give the impression of a gentleman, when he is anything but. The Quentin Tarantino led jury at the Cannes Festival gave a Special Jury prize to Hall for her performance – and she deserved it. She is hilarious in her every scene as a good woman who will not tolerate smoking, swearing or ungodly behavior – and will not back down. The rest of the cast is well suited for their roles – J.K. Simmons is a particular delight as the strangely named Garth Pancake – who inadvertently blows off his own thumbs – but they fade into the background whenever Hanks or Hall are around. They cannot keep up with them.

The film is a remake of the British comedy directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Alec Guinness. That was a better film – not a masterpiece or anything, but quite entertaining. The Coen’s largely leave the plot intact but change just about everything else. The film is a delightfully off kilter black comedy – elevated by two wonderful performances. No, the film doesn’t come close to the Coen’s best films and it certainly does feel like something the brothers threw together on a whim. Perhaps it was. Taken as part of their filmography, there is no doubt that The Ladykillers belongs near the bottom of the list when it comes to Coen movies. That doesn’t mean there isn’t thing to admire about the film – just that there is a reason I didn’t revisit the film in a decade – and probably won’t revisit it again for another.

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