“You, madam, are addressing a man, who is in fact quiet… and yet, not quiet, if I may offer to you a riddle.”
“The apostle John said, ‘Behold, there is a stranger in our midst come to destroy us.'”
“This is a Christian house, boy. No hippity-hop language in here.”
So here I come to the bottom of the Coen canon. “The Ladykillers”, a remake of a 1955 movie, is pretty much universally regarded as the Coen Bros worst movie. There are good reasons for this ranking.
Before I get to those reasons, I will suggest that the Coens doing a remake of a film is a little strange. Up until this point, Joel and Ethan Coen have written original screenplays and directed everything themselves. There are three exceptions to this: 1) “The Hudsucker Proxy” the Coen Bros wrote with help from Sam Raimi (of “Evil Dead” and the first “Spiderman” trilogy fame) who is also credited; 2) “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is loosely based on Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” but so loosely based that we might as well regard this as an original screenplay; 3) “Intolerable Cruelty” being a studio film had five writers credited for the screenplay (Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, John Romano and the Coens).
“The Ladykillers” screenplay was written by William Rose for the 1955 version. I have not seen the older version, which stars Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, but apparently the Coen Bros did some rewriting as they are also credited writers on the 2004 remake.
The movie opens showing a bridge with rather ominous statues and as the camera pans up, we see a garbage dump in the distance. A foreshadowing of where this is all going to wind up. The opening song over these images is from “The Soul Stirrers” and it is a gospel tune: “Come, let us go back to God.” The Coens will again be exploring religious faith in the context of one of their films but I just wish they were able to go deeper.
Set in the south, we soon meet Marva Munson (an excellent performance by Irma P Hall) who is a deeply committed Christian, a widow, active in her church and also religiously gives $5 dollars a month to Bob Jones University (of all the charities, it is hilarious the Coens chose that one). Munson is strict and devout but she is not naïve. With where the film goes, the fact that Munson is not naïve is severely tested by the screenplay itself but the Coens are after a genuine portrait here of a Bible-believing Christian with southern sentiment.
Her door is soon darkened by Tom Hanks as “Professor” Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr who is inquiring about a room she is offering for rent. Hanks’ performance as Dorr is, well, goofy and strange and is definitely one of his more “out there” performances. After “Professor” Dorr gathers Mrs. Munson’s cat from a tree, he wins her approval to live in the open room.
Wouldn’t you know it that the wily “professor” has other plans? He explains to Mrs. Munson that he is a part of a classical music ensemble that will need a quiet place to practice (i.e. Mrs. Munson’s basement). The basement is a root cellar and the “professor” intends to, incredibly, tunnel through her wall into the vault of a casino. Assisting him in the robbery will be his “ensemble”: Gawain MacSam (a brilliant Marlon Wayans) who is a trash talking janitor at the casino, Garth Pancake (JK Simmons) who is an explosives expert, the General (Tzi Ma) who runs a convenience store but also dug tunnels for the Viet Cong, and Lump (Ryan Hurst) who is a lug headed football player brought on for the hard labor and to stand around with a dumb expression on his face.
The Coens stretch the believability of this entire charade even when the film itself is clearly a satire. The criminals will play classical music over a stereo system while in the basement tunneling and if Mrs. Munson pokes her head down the stairs, they will quickly pick up musical instruments and pretend to play. While the genre of the movie is full on screwball comedy, the suspense of disbelief is considerable.
There are complications when Gawain gets fired from the casino after sexually harassing a customer which involved him walking behind her and making admiring comments about her butt. He blackmails his manager to hire him back on. Other complications to their pathetic heist plans come near the end and I won’t give them away.
One major thing about the film that just doesn’t fit is Marva Munson’s character who again is not portrayed as being naïve but is clearly being snookered by not so bright criminals. Digging in her basement and pretending to play instruments, she becomes suspicious but at some point we are wondering: how in the world can she not know what is going on?
My other big complaint is the Coens had a chance in this film to really say something interesting about religious faith or at least what they think of it and missed a chance. The ending of the film, as off the rails absurd as it is, can be interpreted as a Divine presence watching over His faithful saint (Mrs. Munson) in dispatching these idiot reprobates through extraordinary fashion (spoiler alert: think back to the opening scene of the movie). A more sophisticated theological approach to direct religiousity would have been more than welcome.
So, I’m a big Coen fan obviously. There are things that I can find to like about “The Ladykillers” and there are some decent laughs. Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t add up and the themes fall flat when they should have been more fully explored.
Lester Lauding Level: 2.5 (out of 5)
Fargo (review here)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)
The Big Lebowski (review here)
Miller’s Crossing (review here)
The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)
Raising Arizona (review here)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (review here)
Blood Simple (review here)
Barton Fink (review here)
Intolerable Cruelty (review here)