The Ladykillers

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews Robin Clifford 
The Ladykillers
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. (Tom Hanks), has assembled, through a magazine ad, a team of so-called “experts” to pull off the heist of the century. His careful plans to rob a floating casino operation include invading, through subtle subterfuge, the home of unsuspecting, church-going Mrs. Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) to use as his base of operation. But, the best laid plans oft go awry in the Coen brothers’s “The Ladykillers.”

Joel and Ethan Coen have big shoes to fill in their remake of the classic 1955 Alexander Mackendrick black comedy, heist movie of the same title. The previous adaptation of William Rose’s story, now revised by the Coen brothers, starred Alec Guiness as mastermind Professor Marcus who plans the grand robbery only to have it all go to pot due to the innocent intervention of his landlady, Brit Oscar winner Katie Johnson as the irrepressible Mrs. Wilburforce. The original was one of the best dark satires to come out of Ealing Studios and was also one of the first appearances Peter Sellers as one of the “killers.”

This new millennium retelling of the William Rose’s wonderfully offbeat tale by the prolific Coen brothers is the first collaboration of the auteurs with twice Oscar winner Tom Hanks. The actor returns to his more broadly comic roots as he leads an ensemble cast of felons comprised of Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), Garth Pancake (J.K.Simmons), the General (Tzi Ma) and Lump (Ryan Hurst) who intrude upon the home of innocent Mrs. Munson. Dr. Dorr’s plan calls for them to tunnel from her home into the coffers of a local riverboat gambling operation, rip off a couple of million bucks, cover their traces and escape unnoticed.

The good doctor, now Mrs. M’s boarder, begs to use the widow’s root cellar for his small band’s practice of Renaiscance ensemble music. Since none of this den of thieves can actually play an instrument the plan is to use the cover of recorded music to mask their tunneling through to the loot. The dupe works for a while but, when mistakes start to happen, the canny Mrs. Monson figures out the scam and threatens to blow their cover unless they give back the money and attend church with her. Desperate, Dorr concludes that the only thing to do is to off the old lady, but none of these tough guys can do it. One by one, they suffer the same fate as they try to eliminate the one stumbling block in their path.

The Coens certainly are able to create an imaginatively amusing film that retells the original story and giving it a poetic, slow South flair. With the original material so fully realized, the brothers from Minnesota easily transport the action from gritty London to antebellum Saucier, Mississippi. As Mrs. Munson sits in her living with her beloved cat Pickles a shadowy figure looms at her door. She is startled by the imposing presence of Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr until Pickles slips past him and runs up a tree. Mrs. M is more upset by her cat’s escape than she is by the stranger as Dorr tries to save Pickles but falls on his face instead.

Professor Dorr formally introduces himself to the elderly lady and proposes that he take the room for rent she has posted. The extremely smooth and well spoken Dorr,  a cross between an Old South gentleman and the voice of “The Simpsons” Sideshow Bob, asks to use her basement root cellar for the musical practice of his ensemble. Mrs. Munson agrees to the plan, as long as they don’t play any of that “hip-hop music” that she hates. The Professor and his friend take over the basement, break out their instruments, turn on the cassette player and get down to tunneling to their booty.

They succeed in their well planned robbery, with a few mishaps along the way, but just as things are looking up they go drastically wrong. The plan called for the tunnel being collapsed after the heist to cover their tracks but a piece of faulty equipment nearly destroys everything and Mrs. Munson becomes suspicious. As the title suggests, things change from larceny to mayhem and the gang draw straws to see who will do the foul deed.

“The Ladykillers” follows the same story, with variations, as the ’55 classic. Tom Hanks creates quite the character with G.H. Dorr and, with his prosthetic teeth, develops the set of mannerisms to give the not-so-good doctor a unique, fully developed character. His partners, recruited through the magazine ad, are an oddball assortment of thieves. Marlon Wayans plays Gawain MacSam, a ne’er do well character with a great deal of attitude...and a gun. J.K. Simmons is willing-to-compromise Garth Pancake, the technician of the group. The General (Tzi Ma) is a former Viet Cong officer who offers the gang his tunnel building skills and an ever-present cigarette stuck in his mouth. Rounding out this off the wall gang is Lump (Ryan Hurst) a not too bright ex-football player hired to be the thug – as if the sweetly tempered lunk could be anything but nice. Irma P. Hall, as Mrs. Marva Munson, is their equal as the one person who can blow their scheme to smithereens.

Production, as you would expect in a Coen brothers film, is exemplary. Roger Deakins, a long time collaborator with the brothers, does a magnifiscent job in capturing the proceeds on celluloid. The lenser even makes the image of a garbage skow look beautiful. Mary Zophres’s costume design, especially Hank’s southern gentleman look, is perfect for the tone of the film. Production designer Dennis Gassner does a visually stunning job in creating the tiny world of Saucier, Mississippi.

Music, as has been the case with the Coens’s films since “Blood Simple,” is an integral part of “The Ladykillers.” Mrs. Munson’s churchgoing is joined by some very upbeat Gospel music, making me tap my toes at times. Professor Dorr’s “Renaisance ensemble’s” music includes the classical works of Corelli and Boccerini.

“The Ladykillers” is not much more than an exercise for the talented Coens. They don’t make a stretch with their adaptation of the well regarded original source material but certainly show their filmmaking chops with their marshalling of the fine cast and behind-the-camera crew. But, watching their version of “The Ladykillers” really made me want to see the original again. I give this new millennium telling a B.

Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr Ph.D. (Tom Hanks) has a plan for robbing the Bandit Queen riverboat casino by tunneling into its offshore, underground accounting offices from the root cellar of the church-going widow Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall, "Bad Company").  Everything goes Dorr's way - Marva has a room to rent, he places an ad and acquires a team of experts and the robbery nets them 1.6 million dollars.  But when Marva discovers the gang with the money and insists they give it back, the band of thieves are forced to become "The Ladykillers."

Writer/producer/director/editor team Joel Coen and Ethan Coen ("Intolerable Cruelty") remake the 1955 Ealing Studios classic with a Southern Gothic twist, but while their version features a quirky Hanks performance and some interesting new ideas, overall the effort seems lazy and is short on laughs.

A weird opening title sequence whets the palate for Coen comedy, with its biblical font credits floating above an offshore garbage dump.  Mrs. Munson's relationship with the town police is immediately established when she goes to complain about loud hippity hop music (the original's Mrs. Wilberforce is painted as a crackpot - these cops just want to nap their time off).  Back at home, Marva tells her husband, Othar (a painting whose expression changes throughout the film), how nice it would be to go to sleep one night and awaken in the heavenly hereafter just as her door is darkened by Dorr. He introduces himself as a Poe enthusiast who performs baroque chamber music, speaking a language almost foreign to a suspicious Marva Munson.

The Coens get sloppy introducing Dorr's eventual team as they plop four seemingly unrelated scenes into the film with no connective narrative.  Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans, "Requiem for a Dream") is shown as a janitor, the eventual inside guy.  Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons, "Hidalgo"), the explosives expert, is intro'ed screwing up a commercial effect, killing a dog in the process. Suddenly we're inside a football helmet, muscle Lump Hudson's (Ryan Hurst, "We Were Soldiers") clueless point of view on a football field.  A donut shop is held up by two gun-waving homeys, undone by the Vietnamese owner (Tzi Ma, "The Quiet American'), a tunneling expert, and his wife. We only learn that Dorr placed an ad later.  Had the Coens introduced Dorr's ad earlier, these segments wouldn't land like a bunch of non sequiturs.  They also missed a comic opportunity in coming up with a scenario in which Lump would answer an ad.  An explanation for Dorr's motivation for thievery is lacking.

What's good about the script is how they work in verbal and visual duality - the anchored Bandit Queen and the moving garbage barge, Gawain being incensed that Pancake would bring his 'bitch' to the pancake house.  The thieves' transportation is a hearse, which they load up with the bags of dirt removed from The General's tunnel, like grave diggers.  Those bags get disposed of from a bridge onto the barge below, foreshadowing their own fates.  Music is also well integrated into the story, with Marva's disdain for hippity hop ('I left my wallet in El Segundo' she harrumphs) making her dislike Gawain and his boombox and Dorr's rococo recordings contrasted with the rousing Gospel music of Marva's church (the choir is led by Rose Stone of "Sly and the Family Stone").  The film doesn't really pick up steam, however, until the lads begin to draw lots to see who will off the landlady, and then the action over accelerates.  The final punch line back in the Sheriff's (George Wallace, "Mr. Deeds") office falls flat because the Coens never presented Marva as a fantasist, as Wilberforce was in the original.  Marva's cat Pickles gets a cute coda.

Much of the pleasure to be derived from "The Ladykillers" lies in Hanks' odd performance, although even this hangs on gimmickry.  He conjures up Dorr as a Poe-obsessed Mark Twain as possessed by Frasier Crane.  He swirls long strings of words around his mouth and barks out fussy little laughs with technical aplomb.  Irma P. Hall's Marva is mostly a suspicious old lady who gets to deliver the occasionally funny malaprop.  Marva's funniest element is her determinedly bow-legged gait.  Of Dorr's team, Tzi Ma is the most entertaining, a man of few words who makes every word count and who also enjoys the film's most hilarious demise.  His trick curling a lit cigarette in and out of his mouth is one of the movie's funkier character traits, albeit an overused one.  Character actor J.K. Simmons, so notable in "Spider-Man" and "Hidalgo," struggles for laughs as the earnest irritable bowel syndrome sufferer whose penchant for 'sending up trial balloons' alienates his colleagues.  Wayans makes his twitchiness intermittently entertaining and Hurst is credible as a drooling oaf whose two experiments with thought have 50-50 results.  As the casino boss, the comic talents of Coen vet Stephen Root ("Jersey Girl") are  wasted and Diane Delano's (the bus driver in "Jeepers Creepers II") turn as Pancake's Mountain Girl is all about costuming.  George Anthony Bell ("House Party 2") delivers an amusing definition of 'to smite' mid-sermon and Walter Jordan ("Life") is able to milk laughs as a casino guard who finds everything Gawain says or does funny.

Production designer Dennis Gassner ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?") creates a unique little world of hothouse lush neighborhoods and starkly square public buildings, but his set piece bridge design and its integral horizon are obviously computer created.  Art direction by Richard L. Johnson ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), set decoration by Nancy Haigh ("Intolerable Cruelty") and Mary Zophres' ("Intolerable Cruelty") costuming are all full of character rich detail, from the weird baroque musical instruments to Dorr's caped trenchcoat.

"The Ladykillers" is an uneven trifle in the Coens' killer oeuvre.  It's like Woody Allen's "Small Time Crooks" to his body of work if he'd stop making movies in 1989.


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