I’ve noticed that a lot of filmmakers who started off making quirky, edgy independent films are now trying to veer closer to the mainstream. I have some mixed feelings about this. On one hand, you have someone like Steven Soderbergh, who will tackle an ultra-commercial all-star picture like Ocean’s Eleven, then turn around and make something wildly experimental like Full Frontal. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. After all, a lot of these directors previously toiled on works that were barely seen by the public; it’s only natural that many of them would want to branch out and reach more viewers. And as long as they continue to take risks, then what’s the harm in an indie director occasionally doing a mainstream picture?
On the other hand, it’s easy to feel cheated. Consider siblings Joel and Ethan Coen, who have been critics’ darlings since their debut film, Blood Simple. Known for their eccentric and offbeat pictures, the siblings have chosen to play Hollywood’s game of late. I understand the Coens, like many filmmakers of their caliber, might enjoy the challenge of trying to make a big studio film in a way that is artful and intelligent. But when these guys are capable of making brilliant stuff like Fargo and Raising Arizona, should they really be spending their time making pictures like last fall’s Intolerable Cruelty or the current remake of The Ladykillers?
Tom Hanks stars as Professor G.H. Dorr, a guy who looks and dresses like a slightly younger Col. Sanders. Dorr is the leader of a motley crew planning to rob a riverboat casino. The other members of his team are: Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), a member of the casino’s custodial staff who has inside information; Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), an explosives expert; the General (Tzi Ma), an Asian military leader with expertise in tunnel digging; and Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst), an apparently retarded but bulky young man who serves as “the muscle” of the gang.
Dorr and his partners plan to dig an underground tunnel into the casino’s office. Needing a starting place, Dorr rents a room in the home of Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), an elderly African-American widow who spends her days going to church, writing checks to Bob Jones University, and railing against “the hippity-hop.” Posing as a group of classical musicians, the criminals use Marva’s basement (complete with dirt walls) as the place where the tunnel will start. Keeping her from finding out their true intentions is not easy, and eventually she stumbles upon their little secret. They decide she will have to be killed in order to maintain cover. However, Marva is not an easy person to kill, especially when the potential murderers are so inept.
The characters in the Coen brothers’ movies typically start off eccentric and only get more interesting the longer we watch them. (Fargo’s Marge Gunderson epitomizes this idea.) In contrast, the characters in The Ladykillers start off eccentric and go nowhere. Professor Dorr, for instance, presents himself as a genteel Southern gentleman. He speaks in flowery prose, using fifty words to express sentiments that most people could get across in five. By the second hour of the movie, he becomes almost unbearably annoying. It might have been a smarter move to have him put on the affect to fool Marva and her friends. Instead, he behaves and talks that way throughout the entire film. I’m as big a Tom Hanks fan as anyone, but I seriously wanted to throttle Professor Dorr. One has to wonder whether Hanks would have signed on to play such a one-note character had The Ladykillers been directed by less esteemed filmmakers.
The supporting characters are not as irritating, but more generic. They all have names and physical appearances that are supposed to be funny. Mustaches and beards seem to be a source of humor for Joel and Ethan Coen this time around. Aside from Dorr’s Col. Sanders goatee, Pancake has a handlebar mustache and the General has one that resembles Hitler’s. I don’t know about you, but it takes more than goofy facial hair to make me laugh. The same goes for Gawain’s errant cornrows and Lump’s confused stares.
The only character I really liked was Marva herself. Although elements of the character come close to fulfilling the “Big Momma” stereotype that we often see in movies, Irma P. Hall brings a sharp humor to the role. Marva does not always understand things, nor does she always see the bigger picture. However, she’s got enough sass and spunk to get by. Many of the film’s laughs come from her no-nonsense attitude.
I found some laughs in other parts of the story too, but the movie has a tendency to repeat jokes over and over. Pancake, for instance, calls everything “the easiest thing in the world.” There’s also a bit in which dead bodies are dropped off a bridge and onto a passing garbage barge that’s funny the first time, not so funny the fifth. I’ve never seen the original version of The Ladykillers (which starred Alec Guiness and Peter Sellers) but I’m willing to bet that its humor was more restrained and less forced than the remake’s. Comedy such as this should be subtle; it shouldn’t be constantly poking you in the ribs to make sure you get the joke.
There were enough scenes of the patented Coen brothers’ weirdness to at least keep me watching. I’m not sure these guys are capable of making a bad movie. They are capable of producing an unsuccessful one, however, as I have regrettably just discovered. I hope that Joel and Ethan Coen had fun making this film; I similarly hope that their next effort takes them back to the things they do best. The Ladykillers is the first Coen brothers movie that I didn’t like.
( out of four)
The Ladykillers is rated R for language including sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.
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