Review by Dustin Putman
3½ stars out of 4
It took them eight years, but writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen
have finally made a film that makes good on the promise set by their
watermark achievement, 1996's Oscar-winning "Fargo." Since then, the
Coen brothers have released one disappointing motion picture after
the next, with 2003's intolerable "Intolerable Cruelty" setting a
new low for them. Their slump finally comes to an end with "The Ladykillers,"
an uproariously funny, pitch-black remake of the 1955 Alec Guiness
feature. It is, in essence, everything a movie by the Coen's should
be: sharply plotted, thoroughly unpredictable, faultlessly acted,
gorgeously photographed, endlessly entertaining, and packed with grin-inducing irony.
When elderly, churchgoing widower Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) is met
at her door one day by Professor G.H. Dorr, PhD (Tom Hanks), she is
instantly won over by his offbeat southern charms and welcomes him
as her new tenant. Posing as the leader of a spiritual band, G.H.
convinces Marva to allow he and the rest of his band members—trash-talking
casino janitor Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), explosives expert Garth
Pancake (J.K. Simmons), th e cold-blooded General (Tzi Ma), and muscled
lunkhead Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst)—to practice their music in her fruit
cellar. What Marva doesn't know is that they aren't musicians at all,
but a criminal team set on digging their way underground to a nearby
riverboat casino to rob them blind. When Marva discovers their secret
and cannot be persuaded to keep quiet, G.H. and gang have no choice
but to do away with the old lady. Killing her, however, proves to
be more of a challenge than any of them bargained for.
While lighter in tone, "The Ladykillers" is quite reminiscent of "Fargo"
in its story of an expertly planned crime gone fatally awry. And if
anyone knows just how to write and conceive such a plot, it is filmmakers
Joel and Ethan Coen. "The Ladykillers" is a heist film, something
of a cross between 2001's "Ocean's Eleven" and 2000's delightful Woody
Allen caper "Small Time Crooks," that refreshingly avoids most modern
conventions of the genre to bring audiences a fresher, funnier, more
ingenious take on the shopworn subject.
And funny it is. There are a number of enormous, laugh-out-loud moments
throughout, enough to mark it as one of the better comedies in recent
memory, with perhaps its brightest concerning the length G.H. goes
to in hiding from a visiting police officer. A trip to a waffle house
and the unforeseen appearance of Garth's hillbilly girlfriend, only
known as Mountain Girl (Diane Delano), would probably come a close
second to its entire irony-filled climax, where the criminals' plans
quickly go down the drain. The writing is top-notch from start to
finish, veering past predictable, cheap humor and finding more creative
and witty outlets to make its appearances. Even a picture of Marva's
dearly departed husband, whose facial expression chang es depending
on what is happening in each given scene, is explosively winning.
Likewise, the cast—and their characters—are a treasure trove of diverse
personalities and talents. Long absent from the world of comedy, Tom
Hanks (2002's "Road to Perdition") returns with a vengeance to the
genre that made him famous in the '70s sitcom, "Bosom Buddies," creating
a quirky, effervescent delight out of Professor G.H. Dorr, PhD. In
his maniacally over-the-top laugh, his smooth operator mannerisms,
and his sniveling deep-south speech patterns, Hanks brilliantly makes
G.H. a one-of-a-kind walking contradiction.
Irma P. Hall (2002's "Bad Company") is every bit Hanks' match as the
outspoken, God-fearing Marva Munson, a veritable force to be reckoned
with. Hall is a standout every time she appears, which is quite often,
and pr oves to be a pro comedian also able to create a well-rounded,
hard-to-dislike character. It's an Oscar-worthy performance that shouldn't
be forgotten by the end of the year. The impressive supporting work
by Marlon Wayans (2000's "Scary Movie"), Ryan Hurst (2000's "Remember
the Titans"), J.K. Simmons (2002's "Spider-Man"), Tzi Ma (2002's "The
Quiet American"), and Diane Delano (2003's "Jeepers Creepers 2") holds
their own in every way.
Resplendently photographed by Roger Deakins (2003's "House of Sand
and Fog"), excelling in moody film noir mixed with the sun-dappled
Mississippi setting, "The Ladykillers" is a major ci nematic surprise
that once again places Joel and Ethan Coen near the top of the rank
of current filmmakers. Kudos, also, to a resourceful opening credits
sequence deceptive in its hints at the story's outcome without letting
the viewer know its purpose until they have arrived at film's end.
With the exception of a few gospel choir sequences that fail to serve
much purpose and go on too long, "The Ladykillers" makes few missteps
on its path to comic heaven. It is an intelligent Hollywood film with
an exceedingly clever independent mindframe that refuses to alienate
any potential viewer. It is difficult to imagine anyone going to see
"The Ladykillers" and not have a great time in the process.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman