Ladykillers, The (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Ladykillers is an interesting concoction - a faithful update of the original Ealing comedy cooked in vat of Coen Brothers' seasoning. Even though this is based on the 1955 British film of the same name, those unfamiliar with The Ladykillers' pedigree might mistake it for an original. It's an understandable error - The Ladykillers is at home with certain other Coen Brothers titles, namely Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, and Intolerable Cruelty. Although the plot closely tracks that of Alexander Mackendrick's original, many of the nuances, not to mention the funniest jokes, are pure Joel & Ethan Coen.

With The Ladykillers, as with Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens flirt with mainstream acceptability without sacrificing their trademark quirkiness. The participation of Tom Hanks virtually guarantees that this will be the most widely seen of the brothers' eleven features. Yet, despite this, there's no sense of compromise. Not only is this the darkest of comedies, but it gets laughs from some unexpected sources. And, as in The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty, there's one explosive, burst-out-laughing gag.

A word about the original is perhaps in order. I have a fondness for the original The Ladykillers. Like Big Deal on Madonna Street, it turns the caper movie into a farce. The 1955 version is nicely written by William Rose, and has lost none of its zip during the half-century that has passed since its original release. It stars Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, and Peter Sellers (the latter two in their pre-Pink Panther days). It was the final comedy made at Ealing Green Studios before the place was bought by the BBC, and, along with Kind Hearts and Coronets, is viewed as one of the blackest of the Ealing comedies. The Coens admiration of the film is obvious from their treatment of it in this re-imagination.

The setting has been transplanted from London to the tiny southern town of Saucier, a lazy locale that plays host to a riverboat casino. Silver-tongued, Poe-quoting Professor G.H. Dorr (Hanks) arrives in Saucier with the express purpose of robbing that casino. He has assembled a diverse gang that includes Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), an explosives expert with a bad case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome; Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), the "inside man" who works as a janitor on the boat; The General (Tzi Ma), a cold, conscienceless killer who says little; and Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst), the "muscle." For their base of operation, the Professor chooses the house of an elderly widow named Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), who has a room to rent. He claims that he and his friends will be practicing sacred music in her root cellar, when, in fact, they are digging a long tunnel.

The Ladykillers is divided into three easily recognizable parts. The first introduces the characters. The Professor, a living portrait of the perfect Southern gentleman, moves into Marva's house. For Gawain, it's another day on the job. The General foils a would-be hold-up at his convenience store. Garth's special effects work on a TV commercial goes awry (he kills the canine star of a dog food spot). And Lump has an unspectacular outing on the football field (all of which is shown from his point-of-view). The second act concerns the caper, which is straightforward and played primarily for laughs (The Ladykillers should not be confused with a traditional crime movie). Finally, the third half-hour represents the meat of the story, and relates what happens after the deed has been done.

Although Tom Hanks takes top billing, this is an ensemble effort. Hanks' work is laudable - he plays a suave, genteel man with a smooth manner and a laugh that sounds like an asthmatic hyena - but he is upstaged by Irma P. Hall (probably best known as "Big Mama" in Soul Food), who steals the movie as Marva. This isn't by accident. Hanks recognizes his place and inhabits it gracefully. Hall has the most biting one-liners and many of the best bits of physical comedy. (Her repeated slapping of Marlon Wayans is a highlight, and it's not done so often that it becomes overused.) Everyone else is given a moment in the spotlight, but any time Hall is on screen, our attention is focused on her.

Is appreciation of The Ladykillers relegated to those who enjoy the Coens' non-traditional approach to movies? Perhaps - the comedy is at times too dark and edgy for multiplex viewers in search of something frothy and romantic. And Tom Hanks isn't playing the nicest guy on Earth. But, perhaps because I have a somewhat warped sense of humor, I laughed more heartily during The Ladykillers than during anything since the Coens' last effort, Intolerable Cruelty. I suspect that mainstream audiences will find plenty of things to take pleasure in, even though some viewers may be bewildered by what the Coens do. But for those who share my taste in comedy, this is a must-not-miss.

Ladykillers, The (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2004-03-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1