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By Mark Sells | March 26, 2004

“The Ladykillers” marks the return of the Coen Brothers following last year’s disappointing mainstream attempt known as Intolerable Cruelty. The auteurs of such original, stylish works as
“Fargo,” O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and The Man Who Wasn’t There return to the screen with an eclectic spin on the 1955 Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers British comedy of the same name. It involves a group of thieves, led by Tom Hanks’ mischievous Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, who take advantage of a widow’s good nature to burrow their way into a casino vault. And the film is chock full of Coen-isms – a dark comedy mixed with zany characters and a soundtrack that beckons for a gospel revival. Though not as abstract and sharp witted as “O Brother,” “The Ladykillers” is a madcap heist film bound to make you chuckle, giggle, or simply laugh out loud.
Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. is a self-appointed criminal mastermind. Seeking to pull off a heist of the gambling boat, Bandit Queen, Dorr infiltrates the home of an unsuspecting widow, Mrs. Munson, by posing as a tenant, professor, and musician. Munson is a faithful southern Baptist who lives on a dead end street overlooking the Bandit Queen. And she has gotten a reputation for speaking her mind and reporting strange, unsubstantiated happenings to the local police. The two agree on accommodations so long as Dorr keeps to himself. And she offers her root cellar for Dorr and his quartet to rehearse their music so long as they refrain from playing any “hippety hop.”
Including Dorr, the quintet is comprised of a crack team of professionals: Gawain MacSam, the inside guy working the casino; Garth Pancake, the explosives expert; The General, an underground tunnel whiz from Vietnam; and Lump, the muscle to handle the grunt work. Together, they work diligently in the basement while pretending to play Baroque concertos. And after overcoming a few obstacles – complications at the casino, misfiring explosives, and a group of music attentive friends of Mrs. Munson’s – the tunnel and logistics are finally ready for the big heist. But even a well-calculated plan cannot account for everything. And the gang quickly realizes that they may have completely underestimated their naïve host upstairs.
The Coen Brothers are noted in Hollywood for their visionary and quirky style of filmmaking. With dry humor and a touch of eccentricity, their films stand apart from anything you’ll find in theaters today. Perhaps it’s the era in which the films predominantly take place that distinguishes their films. Most, like “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “Barton Fink,” etc., take place in the 30’s and 40’s. Or maybe it’s the music that sets the tone and pleases the ear? From composers Carter Burwell and T. Bone Burnett, Coen films seem to rekindle interest in hillbilly, rhythm and blues, and gospel types of music. And then there is the underlying humor that arises from irony and idiosyncrasies. These qualities all go into a Coen Brothers’ production, defining their pictures and making them so engaging.
The 1955 version of “The Ladykillers,” starred Alec Guinness as the criminal architect, Professor Marcus. Along with Peter Sellers, Danny Green, and Herbert Lom, this string quartet of felons worked their way into the home of Mrs. Wilberforce in an attempt to steal 60,000 pounds from a nearby rail station only to have Mrs. Wilberforce’s ignorance and their ineptitude get the better of them. The film was a comedy of manners, about the art of deception and the incompetent caper. And the screenplay by William Rose was good enough to warrant an Academy Award nomination and a victory at the British Academy Awards.
In adapting the film, the Coens have taken an artistic license with Rose’s accomplished script to update and add their brand of humor and style. They’ve changed the setting to the South, turned Mrs. Munson into a southern Baptist, and added a vibrant gospel track with Baroque and modern influences from the Nappy Roots to The Soul Stirrers to The Swan Silvertones. In their version of “The Ladykillers,” the heist involves a steamboat casino named the Bandit Queen, a larger group of felons, and an assortment of characters that wear contemporary clothing while playing whimsical instruments such as the theobo and harpolyre, all the while listening to a boom box? The variations give the film a timeless appeal and despite the modifications, the essence of the story remains intact. Their ability to control their own destiny is forfeited to Mrs. Munson who believes her destiny and faith belong to someone higher up. And that can only spell trouble.
Still, there just seemed like something was missing. Or maybe a few things? For one, the film lacked the flow and depth of “O Brother.” There were no Homerian or allegorical themes to tie things together and give the film additional layers. It’s simply a heist movie with quirky characters. Secondly, the music did not seem relevant to the telling of the story. In “O Brother,” the characters sing and dance to it, but here, they fake it. And it comes across as a gimmick instead of an integrated piece of the story. Finally, and most significantly, the characters appear as caricatures, cartoonish figures that are made to be funny rather than funny inherently. Tom Hanks is a rambling, confident Colonel Sanders, Marlon Wayans is a wise cracking Daffy Duck, J.K. Simmons is a grizzled Yosemite Sam, Tzi Ma is a quiet, determined Wile E. Coyote; and Ryan Hurst is a brainless, blunt Elmer Fudd.
No matter. I was still engaged throughout the film and found myself laughing uncontrollably in parts – bodies getting dumped over a bridge into a trash barge, intimate details about IBS, and Tom Hanks. Not since 1994’s comedy-drama “Forrest Gump” has Hanks made a genuine comedy and it was great to see him back in the thick of it, getting laughs by his appearance, his speech, and mannerisms. Playing the straight role, but getting plenty of laughs on her own is Irma P. Hall’s Mrs. Munson, perhaps the film’s most original character. Her expressions are hilariously unsophisticated: Proudly detailing her contributions to Bob Jones University, playfully searching for Professor Dorr underneath the guest bed, and slapping the foul mouthed, chain smoking felons silly. Hall is a pleasant surprise and worth watching.
“The Ladykillers” is a screwball comedy that wants you to laugh on appearance alone. Though some of the humor is tasteless, macabre, and simply odd, the overall effect is with good intent and fun. The Coen Brothers’ sense of humor won’t appeal to everyone; in fact, I often think they make their films for themselves foremost and audiences secondary. But the reality is that you won’t find a more unique looking, sounding, or presentable film. Good but not great, “The Ladykillers” is simple, somewhat funny and “nothing more.”
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