The Ladykillers (2004)Rated R for language including sexual references.
Starring Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst.
LVJeff's Rating: 8/10
Photo ©Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.
The Coens in a Groove
The Ladykillers, a remake of the 1955 British comedy, finds the Coen Bros. in fine form stylistically. And, for the first time, both are credited with directing -- it's usually just Joel. There's something about the way their work is so polished that it forces one to smile -- here, for instance, it's lovely how the beginning credits are set up to make the appearance of the title, "The Ladykillers," so deliciously ironic in hindsight. The Coens are now comfortable enough in their methods to consistently balance their clinical, calculated style with a stronger sense of lived-in warmth, primarily by using humor and music.
The plot of the movie fits the Coens like a glove -- it's another example of their favorite kind of tale, the crime gone wrong. Adapting a previously written script also gives them a tighter story to work with -- in a way, this movie is similar to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but without as many rough edges, subplots, and not-quite endings. It also happens to be an improvement, taking what was originally a thin plot which acted as a gag-clothesline and filling up the empty spaces with environmental flavor, character creativity, and fleshed-out motivations. This time, for example, the four bad guys under the ringleader don't seem as interchangeable in function and personality. They also don't just sit around in the room pretending to play music while presumably biding their time with useless conversations.
It's also pleasing to see Tom Hanks, as that ringleader Prof. G.H. Dorr, get a chance to do some straight-up comedy work again -- it's easy to forget these days that he started off as a comedian -- and he visibly relishes his chance to truly create a character, not unlike the way Johnny Depp stepped into Capt. Jack Sparrow. The interaction between Hanks and Irma P. Hall as the lady who soon becomes the professor's chief concern is what gives the movie not only its most interesting character contrast but also its intriguing moralistic stance, one expanded from the original movie's light example of virtue vs. vice. This one seems to be making a case for the values of spiritualism and traditionalism, with the professor and one of his allies in particular, the disrespectful loudmouth Gawain (Marlon Wayans), being the primary examples of what happens when those values are ignored. With the professor, the Coens also appear to be implicating the pursuit of academics without ethical considerations. With the brothers, though, you can never tell if they're being serious, and, seriously, the comedy is played so broadly in their film that it would be easy to dismiss the notion of looking for a theme here.
Actually, this tendency of the Coens to favor cartoon-like comedy, complete with characters so exaggerated they border on one-note, is alarming; it's certainly the biggest weakness here. The same thing holds true about two of their recent flicks, Intolerable Cruelty and O Brother, Where Art Thou? In The Ladykillers, there's a danger in their use of the southern black population as subjects -- we've seen these kinds of caricatures before, from the fiery evangelical Baptist churchgoers to the gangsta-stylin' youth. Again, if read as a commentary of the gap that exists between the adults and the kids, where the kids have no sense of the history of the adults' struggles, this might be permissable. If Spike Lee made this movie, it might even be appropriate. But the broadness of the comedy the Coens employ threatens to make these depictions damaging to the already wounded image of today's African-American people.
Still, as long as the Coens are making comedies, it's hard not to cheer their attempts at delivering them with panache. When it's good it's golden -- their home run here is the way they handle the ending, which, while surprisingly faithful to the structure of the original's finale, gives the brothers plenty of room to show off their divinely outrageous sense of twistedness we've all come to know and love.
©Jeffrey Chen, Mar. 22, 2004