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The Ladykillers

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Ladykillers

Starring: Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans
Director: Joel Coen
Rated: R
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: March 2004
Genres: Comedy, Suspense


*Also starring: Irma P. Hall, Ryan Hurst, Stephen Root, George Wallace, J.K. Simmons, Freda Foh Shen, Tzi Ma, Walter K. Jordan, Jennifer Echols, Jason Weaver



Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

The black guy is killed first, but aside from that "The Ladykillers" is an original; unconventional and imaginative, that is, if you're among the unlucky few never to have experienced Alexander Mackendrick's 1955 Ealing Studios film of the same name, starring Alec Guinness. While comparisons are not in order after all, an American audience can better relate to the Coen Brothers' reinvention of a comedy almost literate enough to meet Oscar Wilde's standards "The Lady Killers" boasts a crackerjack ensemble, each adult representing a specific culture whose less-than-successful attempts to work together evoke the story's comic moments.

Regular moviegoers will easily recognize the signature style of Joel and Ethan Coen, who share both the direction and scripting of this version. While "Fargo" is perhaps their best-known work and "Barton Fink" the most likely to split audience opinions, "The Ladykillers" may not embrace the noir conceits of "Blood Simple" (a serpentine story of a cuckolded husband who hires someone to kill his wife and her boyfriend) or be encumbered by the flimsy plot of "The Hudsucker Proxy" (a country boy becomes the pawn of a big city scheme to ruin a corporation). Nor is this a heist film that would have been conceived by David Mamet. The dialogue is anything but city-slicker conscious, and the folks who populate the movie, save one, are bumpkins.

If you've even been to Mississippi on a gaming casino boat, you'll pick up the Bible Belt atmosphere that permeates the Coen brothers' tale. A pretentious professor, Goldthwait Higginson Dorr II, Ph.D. rents a room from a church-going, arthritic woman in her late sixties (Marva Munson, played by Irma P. Hall) with the mutual agreement that the basement may be used for rehearsals of his early Renaissance music group. Truth to tell, Gawain (Marlon Wayans), Garth (J.K. Simmons), the General (Tzi Ma) and Lump (Ryan Hurst) are conspirators in a scheme to dig a tunnel through the basement wall leading to a gaming casino, and to stuff $l.6 million of casino money into Hefty bags. The lady of the house, duped for a while about the real intentions of the scammers, enjoys the company of the professor, though we wonder how much of his flowery, 19th century language she comprehends.

The running gags which abound are evoked by the differences among the men involved in the heist. While each is a specialist, trouble brews because of cultural road-bumps among the men. In taking the values of the youthful, modern black culture, Marlon Wayans' Gawain, who is chosen because he is a custodian with the casino and thereby an inside man, runs regularly afoul of the patience of demolitions expert Garth Pancake. On a positive note, Lump, chosen for his strength and certainly not for a mind that has been virtually destroyed by too much football, gets along as does the General, the former because of his inability to express ideas, the latter for his Zen- like, stoic silence.

The standout performance is not from Tom Hanks whose inability to utter a single sentence without a maze of elocutionary zeal but from Irma P. Hall as the down-home, Sunday-go-to-church woman, who has tried the patience of the sheriff more than once too often and whose ultimate savvy about the heist propels the professor into plotting her demise. Hence the name of the movie, "The Ladykillers."

Hanks in a role he has never tried before, can get on one's nerves for his endless, antebellum delivery (though he has mastered the dialect and sticks to it throughout). Hall, in the role of the conspirators' would-be victim, is a pleasure to watch, her homey lingo a needed antidote to Hanks's slow, methodical palaver.

The soundtrack is a winner, featuring gospel music so strong and mellifluous that it could make Osama Bin-laden convert, while photographer Roger Deakins captures the mood of a south with one foot in the 19th century, the other in our own time.

Copyright 2004 Harvey Karten

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