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Ladykillers, The (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 26 March 2004
The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, clearly have chutzpah to spare: they’ve remade one of the most highly-regarded black comedies of all time, 1955’s “The Ladykillers.” And they’ve done a pretty good job of it, too. It’s not as droll as the original—droll is a hard tone to reach—and it’s kind of pokey in the middle stretches. They’re also going for a more completely comic approach than did the original, and they usually succeed.

Finally, however good Tom Hanks is, he’s not as good as Alec Guinness (I suspect Hanks would agree), who in the original picture gave one of his most colorful performances, partly a brilliant impression of the great Alistair Sim, complete to wearing false teeth that resembled Sim’s. Hanks’ performance is colorful in its own way, and he also is wearing fake teeth. He never quite gets a firm grip on the role, but he’s amusing throughout. His character, a flowery phony professor with a deep-South accent and an incredible vocabulary, is the best thing about “The Ladykillers.” He’s a non-stop talker, filling his lengthy sentences with Shakespearian references and lots of words that haven’t gotten much exercise lately: solons, alluvial plain, nugatory, riparian and so forth. He’s fond of describing quote marks in the air with both hands; when one is occupied, his free hand makes both sets of quotes. The guy is a walking cartoon, right down to his white/creamy suits (with capes), white hats, bow ties and his name: Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. It’s quite an amazing performance. His windy giggles wear out their welcome though—they even do that in the trailers for the movie.

It all takes place in a small Mississippi town that’s so sleepy the jailhouse’s single key is bedecked in cobwebs. The sheriff (George Wallace) is aroused from his daily nap by good-hearted but stern old lady, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall). She’s there to complain, loudly, about a neighbor kid playing “hippity-hop” music on his ghetto blaster. Even the titles of the songs annoy her: “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.” Well, I never.

She returns to her handsome old Victorian home, where she’s kept company by her cat Pickles and a big painting of her late husband on the wall of the living room. She has no TV, passing her time listening to gospel music on LPs and knitting. But she’s interrupted by the arrival of a very white stranger (Mrs. Munson is black), who wants to rent a room, including using her earth-walled basement for the practice sessions of his ensemble that plays late Renaissance music; their instruments include a sackbut.

The Coens introduce us to each of the gang in emblematic little episodes: streetwise Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans) is a gabby janitor at a nearby riverboat casino. Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) is a jack-of-all-trades, stuffy in his khaki outfits. The General (Tzi Ma) is a man of little words, a very tough former South Vietnamese Army officer. The funniest intro is seen entirely from inside a football helmet worn by Lump (Ryan Hurst), who’s strong but stupid.
They all meet in Mrs. Munson’s cellar, which delights her. While Dorr plays a CD to cover for their “practice,” he outlines their scheme: they will tunnel from Mrs. Munson’s basement down to the on-shore money vault of the casino. Dorr has, he thinks, carefully chosen the right team to bring off this daring robbery.

The middle third of the movie is devoted to the crime itself. There are setbacks: Gawain is furious when Garth brings his big muscular girlfriend (Diane Delano) to a meeting at a breakfast restaurant. “The man brought his BITCH into the waffle hut!” the outraged Gawain shouts, repeatedly. Dorr seizes control of the situation. “We must all have waffles,” he tells the bored waitress.

Despite Gawain squabbling with the more even-tempered Garth, the robbery actually goes off without many hitches. Of course, they almost blow up Mrs. Munson’s house once, but every great scheme has its little setbacks. It doesn’t help that Garth blew off one of his fingers, which Pickles, who watches all the criminal activity with great interest, runs off with. There are several scenes set on a nearby bridge, which is bedecked with gargoyles that look like crabby old Puritan women, and under which garbage scows constantly pass.

But then Mrs. Munson discovers them with their $1.6 million, and demands that they give it back. This is where the title comes into play, as the gang of crooks try to figure out the best way to eliminate the old woman.

The biggest weakness in the movie is that most of it is a preamble for the last twenty minutes, and audiences can grow impatient: there were several walkouts at the press screening. This is not the Coen Brothers best movie (that remains “Fargo”), but it’s still amusing, well worth seeing. Hanks’ performance alone is a study in comic grace; he’s very clever about improvising explanations that almost satisfy Mrs. Munson. When she’s suspicious about his hiding under the bed when the sheriff comes by, he blithely explains, “We academics are inordinately fond of wedging ourselves into confined spaces.” In his discussion of religious music, a reference to blowing a shofar is heard by a scandalized Mrs. Munson as blowing a chauffeur, not quite the same thing. This is Hanks’ first sustained comedy in several years, and he’s clearly having a grand time.

So is Marlon Wayans, who’s consistently hilarious as the would-be gang-banger, all attitude and mouth. He’s pretty stupid, but this doesn’t prevent him from thinking it’s all about him. The Coens couldn’t find anything as colorful for J.K. Simmons to do; he does suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, which seems mostly a setup for a somewhat distasteful punchline. Tzi Ma rarely says anything at all, and Ryan Hurst mostly stares with his mouth open, uncomprehending, at everything going on around him, which is funnier than you might expect.

Irma P. Hall is quite magnificent as old Mrs. Munson, who’s probably never been farther away than Natchez. Her life is winding down, but she’s satisfied with it; she’s often puzzled by the activities of her new boarder, but she knows how to deal with a sassy black kid like Gawain. She’s a devoted member of her local church, which gives the Coens plenty of opportunities to cut away to the lively gospel choir and the great shoutin’ preacher. The movie is largely scored with gospel music, and should provide a great soundtrack album, though it’s not as varied and colorful as “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” nor is it likely to do for gospel music what that did for bluegrass and delta blues.

The movie is very well made, with handsome, dreamy sleepy-summer colors, photographed by Roger Deakins, with production design by Dennis Gassner. The sound is subtle, with full surround mostly in the exterior scenes which feature summertime bird calls. The first, accidental, explosion fades slowly away in a dying rumble, which is in itself unexpectedly funny.

The Coens always respect their audiences; they don’t compromise on approach, assuming that people are smart enough to go along with them. Their characters are always colorful and often funny, but the Coens observe them with a certain wry disregard. Not, however, with Mrs. Munson; she’s easily fooled because she’s innocently trusting, even of a flowery blowhard like Dorr. But she’s also tough and determined, and triumphs in the end.

In a way, she and Dorr are similar. They are both survivors of a remote, more genteel time, he from a time when language was something with which you decorated your life, from when creamy suits, goatees and a light sense of humor were hallmarks of a gentleman. She from when small towns were comfortable, quiet and pleasant, not full of “hippity-hop” music. The differences between them, though, are more important; she’s so ingrained with honesty that she never thinks someone might be lying to her. She’s a perfect target for the unscrupulous Dorr; he assumes his charm works on her, and for a time it does. But finally he runs head-on into her implacable sense of dignity and honesty.

The script of the original music was by William Rose. It’s available on home video; if you haven’t seen it, you should. The new “The Ladykillers” isn’t quite up to that level, but it’s intelligent, entertaining and well-crafted. And it’s very funny.

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