The Ladykillers (2004)
Director : Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Screenplay : Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (based on a by William Rose)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Tom Hanks (Goldthwait Higgins 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)
While their most recent outing, last year’s Intolerable Cruelty, was the least Coen-ish movies Joel and Ethan Coen had ever made, they have returned with their unique authorial presence fully intact with The Ladykillers, which is, quite ironically, their first remake of an earlier film. In this case, it is a 1955 British comedy starring Alec Guinness, the last of the infamous Ealing Studio comedies and a prime example of the ruthlessness of British dark comedy at its finest. The Coens have taken the basic premise of the original, but transported it to Mississippi and given it a distinctly American spin. While their version is clearly the inferior of the two (there is just something inherently British about the entire premise), the Coens still manage to spin some funny moments and make the film a worthy timekiller.
Their biggest coup is casting Tom Hanks and returning him to the straight comedic roots from which he emerged. Everyone has become so preoccupied with Hanks the multiple Oscar winner, Hanks the 21st-century Jimmy Stewart, Hanks the everyman, that it is easy to forget he was a gifted comedian first who successfully morphed into a gifted dramatic actor. Outfitted with a goatee, a pair of awfully crooked teeth, and an outlandishly outdated Southern gentleman wardrobe that would be at home on Colonel Sanders, Hanks plays one Goldthwait Higgins Dorr, a pompous professor of dead languages who rents a room in the large home of widow Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall). Ostensibly he is there on sabbatical to practice music with his band, but in actuality he is concocting a scheme to tunnel through Marva’s root cellar into the counting room of a nearby casino.
While Hanks’ character is a Southern-fried riff on Alec Guinness’ original, Irma P. Hall’s character is completely reimagined. The original lady of the title was a dainty, impossibly sweet widow brilliantly played by Katie Johnson, whose eventual victory over the criminals in her house was in stark contrast to her minimalist physical presence and melodious disposition. Hall’s Marva, on the other hand, is a force to be reckoned with. Large, outspoken, and fundamentally set in her conservative Christian ways (she even gives regularly to Bob Jones University, an amusingly ironic gesture from a black woman to a school with a racist history), Marva doesn’t put up with anything that even casts a shadow near her rigid moral threshold, especially “hippity hop” music.
The oddball assortment of men Dorr assembles is also completely different from the original. The inside man is Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), a street thug with an attitude whose proclivity for “hippity hop” language is guaranteed to get him on Marva’s bad side. He also butts heads with Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), a relic of 1960s social progressivism who dates a homely woman named Mountain Girl (Diane Delano) and thinks of himself as a munitions expert, even though his first brush with dynamite results in the loss of one of his fingers. Much less vocal are The General (Tzi Ma), who is apparently an ex-Viet Cong who knows all about tunneling, and Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst), a football player who has been hit in the head one too many times. How this group could have ever come together is a mystery, but as a group they make an amusing cross-section of cliché movie heist experts, albeit each with his own slightly twisted shortcoming.
The Ladykillers takes a while to build up steam, but once it gets going, it moves along smoothly enough on its cross-cultural humor and slowly darkening black comedy. This is, after all, a movie whose ultimate aim is to kill off each of the would-be ladykillers, and some of the best visual gags involve bodies falling off a bridge onto a garbage barge passing underneath (in the original, it was a train). After the visual simplicity of Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens have returned to a more audacious look, although it is nothing overtly spectacular. There are several memorable shots, including a bizarre collection of gargoyles lining the bridge that look Popeye gone to hell, and a few genuinely funny setpieces, such as Dorr getting out of a jam by reciting an Edgar Allan Poe poem in his peculiarly florid tones to a roomful of Marva’s tea-sipping lady friends.
Although The Ladykillers is ultimately a lesser vehicle than the original, it is worth watching just to see Hanks chewing into a juicy, throwaway comic role. It is all the more enticing in that he plays a bad guy, although Dorr is never particularly threatening. Of course, that’s part of the movie’s fundamental joke. In the world of the Coens, nothing fits quite right—the heist mastermind is a pompous intellectual and his undoing is by a woman whose idea of a felony is the kid down the street playing his music too loud.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright ©2004 Touchstone Pictures