The Ladykillers (2004)

Jeffrey’s review of The Ladykillers was originally published at Christianity Today on March 26, 2004.

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This is not the first time moviegoers have seen Tom Hanks secretly tunnel through the earth beneath a stranger’s house.

In 1989′sThe ‘Burbs, a subversive comedy  by Joe Dante about eccentric criminals in a friendly suburban neighborhood, Hanks dug his way right into an explosion that rocked the neighborhood. It happens again here, in The Ladykillers — which happens to be a subversive comedy about eccentric criminals in a friendly Bible Belt neighborhood.

But that’s where the resemblances between The Ladykillers and other Tom Hanks comedies stop.

In fact, Hanks’ first outing with the notoriously odd moviemaking team of Joel and Ethan Coen buttons him into a character quite unique in his repertoire — a malevolent villain. Professor G.H. Dorr is a criminal mastermind who dresses as if he has been around since the mid-1800s. He speaks with a stiff Southern accent that renders almost unintelligible his verbose and archaic grandiloquence, a style of speech that suggests he was raised on nothing but Edgar Allen Poe. Dorr fancies himself as sophisticated and highly educated, but at heart he’s as rotten and empty-headed as the rest of the Coen Brothers’ big screen thieves. His method is to organize a team of “experts” who will carry out the hard work of the crime while he rocks back in a chair and quotes poetry or, when things go wrong, mutters things like, “How very irregular.

Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), Dorr’s latest target, is a no-nonsense Southern Baptist widow who isn’t about to let the house of her deceased husband be tarnished by tenants who smoke cigarettes—or who listen to that awful “hippity-hop music.” When she’s not knitting and talking to her husband’s rather expressive portrait, she’s down at the local police station reporting complaints about local hooligans. Clearly, Dorr is in for a tough time.

But Dorr has chosen Marva’s house for its proximity to his goal. He deceives her into renting him the empty room upstairs. Once he gains her confidence, he and his team go to work downstairs in the root cellar. She’s convinced that he is rehearsing with an ensemble (“on-SOM-bluh”) of musicians specializing in “music of the rococo.” To pull off this ruse, Dorr masks the sounds of their tunneling efforts with recordings of classical music. While Marva smiles and knits to the reverberations from a boom box below ground, they dig their way to the underground cash vault of a nearby steamboat casino.

Meanwhile, Dorr’s man on the inside (Marlon Wayans), posing as a steamboat janitor, tries not to arouse the suspicion of his disgruntled boss. The chameleonic Steven Root, also appearing unrecognizably in this week’s Kevin Smith film Jersey Girl, fills the role that is present in every Coen Brothers film: the powerful and corrupt authority sitting behind a desk.

It seems like a foolproof plan. But moviegoers know that fools of the Coen Brothers’ variety are the most spectacular fools of all. Remember the escaped convicts robbing a bank in Raising Arizona with a stolen baby in tow? The crooks who made memorable use of a wood chipper inFargo? Or the fellow who mistook his pistol for an inhaler in Intolerable Cruelty? That must have been what attracted the Coens to do a remake—their first—of this dark, twisted, 1955 British comedy by William Rose. If The Ladykillers is about anything, it is about fools digging their own graves.

As funny as it is, The Ladykillers has an air of desperation about it. The Coens seem to have lost control of their signature qualities. They’re increasingly willing to settle for sophomoric, predictable, and downright crass comedy. The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and Intolerable Cruelty went for lowbrow laughs as well, but the characters eventually won our sympathies. Here, the Coens spend each scene straining for laughs with limited success, content merely to exploit the stupidity of their characters to the point of absurdity. The film’s biggest laugh is just a variation on an accidental death that occurred at the end of their last film. Sure, the movie’s a laugh riot, very likely to be a big hit. In fact, it’s funnier than any comedy released so far this year. But the Coens have shown many times that they are capable of something far richer and more memorable.

Part of the problem is that the focus of the film is too much on Dorr, not enough on Marva. The great Alec Guinness played Dorr in the original Ladykillers with a sort of perverse glee. He was a thoughtful over-polite fellow who, when others looked away, betrayed his sinister intent with a ghastly smile. That version of the villain was just creepy enough to make us squirm and laugh in discomfort. Hanks’ Dorr is plenty creepy, but he is more annoying than unsettling. Unlike George Clooney’s wacky divorce lawyer in Intolerable Cruelty, who grew and changed, there is no heart under Hanks’ heavy burden of behaviors. He remains opaque, merely odd, never endearing. Are we supposed to hope for his success? His redemption? His destruction?

It’s not Hanks’ fault. Like Clooney, Nicolas Cage, John Goodman, Frances McDormand, and Billy Bob Thornton before him, he masters his character’s inane dialect and adds another unforgettable performance to the great Coen pantheon. But the Coens fail to find a character in Dorr’s mess of characteristics. Worse, they misgauge our tolerance for his spasmodic laughter and impenetrable verbiage.

Dorr’s four companions fare no better. Each one is a cliché with an added twist, a forced joke with an extra punchline. Gawain MacSam (Wayans) is a gun-happy gangsta with a fixation on ‘booty’ and a mouth that’s fouler than perhaps any Coen character yet. This brand of humor clashes with the Coens’ more sophisticated style, aiming to please baser appetites. It’s juvenile and wearying.

You could call Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons of Spider-man) “the Dunce of Detonators.” He’s an explosives expert with a rather explosive physical condition that is sure to cause a crisis at the worst possible time. This will get big laughs … from those who think high school locker room humor is funny.

The General (Tzi Ma)—a much more interesting and amusing invention — is a Japanese assassin, a man of few words … especially when he’s trying to hide a burning cigarette in his mouth. The film’s best-choreographed catastrophe occurs when his stealth fails him in the middle of murderous stalking.

Dumbest of them all, Lump (Ryan Hurst) is a world champion of village idiots, a football player who takes orders as the team’s “blunt instrument,” so long as his conscience remains shell-shocked by gridiron collisions.

These losers never achieve the chemistry that characterized the bowling buffoons in The Big Lebowski and the sensitive crooks in Raising Arizona. They’re so ill-equipped for heist work that the movie becomes merely a question of how spectacularly they will fail. Call it Oceans Zero.

Three things make the film worth catching: music, cinematography, and Irma P. Hall.

Hall walks away with the movie. As the well-intentioned but gullible widow, she delivers a heart-and-soul performance that you’ve gotta love. While she’s misguided in her desire to invest all of her assets in Bob Jones University — one of the film’s best running gags — her knack for detecting lies and stopping wrongdoers in their tracks makes her the center of the film.

Her church choir does its part to redeem moviegoers’ time as well, stirring up foot-stompin’, hand-clappin’, hallelujah-shoutin’ soul. From the opening hymn to the closing-credit anthem, these roof-raising hymns and anthems spell out the film’s obvious moral framework. “Go Back to God” is the exhortation in the opening hymn, sung like a dire warning to the cretins invading this church lady’s house. And sure enough, as the thieves ignore the path of righteousness, their sins are found out.

But the most masterful work in the film is the cinematography of Roger Deakins, who has become the most trustworthy member of the Coens’ team. In relocating The Ladykillers from London to the Bible Belt, he finds opportunity to compose some of his finest tableaus. From the polish of the steamboat brass to the murky Mississippi, from Marva’s dank root cellar to the tree-lined streetscapes of the Louisiana neighborhood, Deakins offers imagery worthy of a far better film.

The Coens can probably continue to turn out stylish capers like this for decades. But that sophisticated stride that made their first run of films so remarkable has here degenerated into a sophomoric stumble. There was a time when they took their characters half-seriously. We came away doing more than just quoting them. We cared about them.

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