The Ladykillers

Coen's ailing Ealing remake fails to make the grade. B- for effort.

Released in 2004, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 02 Jul 2004 by Craig Eastman
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Can you feel the ground shake? If ever there was a certain bet it's that critical darlings the Coen borthers could never possibly make a cack film; it's against their programming or something. Even last year's acolyte-bothering Intolerable Cruelty turned out to be a minor triumph, far from the duo's best work but easily allaying fears they had "gone commercial" with a typically offbeat overtone and some deft character interaction between George Clooney and Her What Is From Wales. Amidst fears they may have taken a knock on the collective head, Joel and Ethan announced their next project as this; a remake of classic British Ealing comedy The Ladykillers where a group of bumbling thieves take lodging in an old lady's home in order to pull off a heist. Again there were cries of "calm down". This time the detractors were right...

First off, The Ladykillers is by no means crap. Any reference to it being "bad" is in reference to the brothers' body of work as a whole, and when you think about it proportionally a shite Coen brothers movie is always going to be at least as good if not better than most other things on a fair day. Except maybe Ribena and/or beef jerky. What is disappointing is that the movie definitely falls toward the lower end of this scale, swamping what could have been an insidiously dark entry into the Coen canon amidst a sea of equally bland summer contenders. The elements are certainly all there; dark subject matter, black comedy, a Coen-penned script that became a bona-fide brotherly vehicle when they agreed to produce and direct, and the unstoppable box office force of one Mr. Tom Hanks. So what went wrong? Maybe sun spots. Maybe planetary alignment. Maybe sinister alien forces who have tapped the duo's hive-mind for knowledge of infinitely good filmmaking. We just don't know.

Actually it's quite obvious what's happened. In penning a script that was originally intended for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct, Joel and Ethan have, as The Big Lebowski's Walter Sobchak might say, gotten "out of their element", introducing a vein of broad humour (including most unwelcome references to bodily function that frankly cause cringing rather than chortles) that they're wholely unsuited to handling. Not only that, but Hanks' character aside the supporting players are woefully two-dimensional, failing to either flesh out or interact in the fashion to which we've been accustomed for all these years. A serviceable script it may be in terms of seasonally average popcorn fodder, but serviceable does not equal acceptable when you're talking about the brothers Shakespeare of modern cinema.

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Still, in mentioning Hanks one has to give fair praise for what is easily his best and most entertaining performance in ages. The character of Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr PhD is quite the most eccentric portrayal this reviewer has seen in a mainstream movie for quite some time, and his masterminding of the plot to use Marva Munson's basement as a means of entry to a casino vault plays wonderfully second fiddle to some ingenious verbal diarrhoea (perhaps the script's only ace). In parallel with his musical preference, Dorr's mannerisms are perhaps best described as rococo, and to say Hanks clearly relishes this is a massive understatement. The actor doesn't so much pick up the ball and run as continue out of the stadium and across the street with it, but herein lies another problem; nobody else (save perhaps Irma P. Hall as Marva Munson) can be bothered investing the project with as much enthusiasm, and that includes the Coens. The nett effect of this is that like some stranded coalition soldier out in the Iraqi desert surrounded by enemy troops, Hanks is left firing both barrels, screaming for support from his comrades that never comes.

Of his colleagues the only one to show any animation is Marlon Wayans, a fact that should have you terrified by it's very mention. As you'd expect, his liveliness is wholly misdirected in a performance which, just to play against type, involves him waving a gun about at random whilst screaming "fuck" every opportunity he gets and weilding the kind of general subtlety that soon has you wishing he himself would just "fuck off" and go make Scary Movie 9 instead. It's not big and it's not clever. The remainder of the cast are even more disposable, leaving you wondering why they were even necessary in the first place; a fact that surely an ensemble comedy has a long way to go explaining. At least Hall makes some effort above treading water, investing Munson with some African-American zest that makes the character appealing (her disdain at "hippity-hop music" and it's frequent reliance on the word "nigger" proving particularly fruitful), if a little too good a foil for the viewer ever to be in doubt as to who will emerge the victor come the credits.

And so I strive for summation. The Ladykillers has taken a bit of a panning from critics who have quite rightly cited that it is a) nowhere near as good as the original (I'll take this on faith having never seen it, blame Tippy if you think I'm wrong!) and b) a woeful misfire for the Coen brothers. True, true, true. But you know what? I haven't floated off into space yet, so I guess the world hasn't stopped turning. The Ladykillers remains pleasing enough with one or two moments of deliciously dark humour and an insanely inspired central performance from Hanks. As for the creative minds behind this...well, in the time honoured tradition of parents everywhere, let me say this to the Coen's; we're not angry at you, we're just disappointed.

Disko awards this movie 3 out of 5 Rococo Units

Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast list:
Tom Hanks (Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr PhD)
Irma P. Hall (Marva Munson)
Marlon Wayans (Gawain MacSam)