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The Ladykillers   B

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (based on the screenplay by William Rose)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, Diane Delano.

Review by Rob Vaux

The brothers Coen have done better work than The Ladykillers. It lacks the nuances of Blood Simple or Fargo, and doesn't scale to the heights of slapstick that Raising Arizona did. Instead, it settles for agreeable nonsense, amusing us without thought of anything more complicated. Its plot is nakedly mechanistic yet always enjoyable; its characters play on simple ideas that still work. The juice comes in the Coens' off-kilter approach to their subjects, which fills the screen with energy as bright and forgettable as an evening of fireworks. Some will condemn it as a waste of talent, but it's hard to find fault when you're snickering at the screen.

Star Tom Hanks certainly presents a conundrum. He plays Professor G.H. Dorr, one of those cockeyed characters who exist only in the Coenverse. A southern dandy with a love of excess verbiage, he first appears amid ominous musical undertones, looking like nothing so much as Colonel Sanders' evil nephew. He has a dastardly plot in mind -- robbing a riverboat casino by tunneling through a little old lady's root cellar -- which he unveils through a combination of clinical bombast and self-satisfied guffaws. The performance... well, what can one say? Terms like "good" and "bad" are almost nonapplicable. It's unique and that's enough.

It's also very funny, as are the remainder of his hastily assembled crew. The Coens do love their stupid criminals, and The Ladykillers has them in spades: a Vietnamese digger named the General (Tzi Ma) who can do wonders with a lit cigarette, an explosives expert (J.K. Simmons) who talks a better game than he plays, a muscleman (Ryan Hurst) who's really too soft-hearted for low-rent goonery, and Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), the all-important inside man with a chip on his shoulder the size of the Gulf Coast. Like Dorr, they're hopelessly broad and played solely for laughs. So too is their ultimate nemesis, the aforementioned little old lady (Irma P. Hall) who's under the impression that they're band members, down in her cellar practicing for a Renaissance Faire. The Coens take them all and hurl them against each other like billiard balls, relying on the humor of collision to carry the film.

The trick works, mostly due to their attention to detail and the wicked gags which they so relish in delivering. The Ladykillers borrows heavily from Alec Guinness's arsenic-and-tea-cozy comedies (it's based on a 1955 film of the same name), while incorporating the directors' usual twist of complicated schemes gone wrong. Dorr's plan is really quite slick, and unfolds with much more efficiency than, say, Jerry Lundegaard's bumbled extortion in Fargo. The cast enters into the proceedings with great relish (Simmons is a standout), and the brothers' darker instincts are just noticeable enough to add a decent shade of gloom.

To be sure, it's simple and depthless, an exercise in showiness that drives the Coens' harsher critics mad. The further down you dig, the more hollow it becomes, and there's really no foundation supporting it all. That may be a turnoff to some, especially coming so fast on the heels of the equally frivolous Intolerable Cruelty. But like that earlier film, the trappings themselves are their own rewards. The Ladykillers has a fairy-tale symmetry to it, a satisfying elegance that doesn't require plausibility to work. If the story moves in blatantly artificial terms, at least it rewards our attention. Production designer Dennis Gassner drapes the entire proceedings in an air of Southern Gothic, punctuated by the Coens' love for gospel music that is about the only irony-free element of their work.

Could they be doing more? Of course, but that doesn't invalidate a leisurely little holiday like this. The Ladykillers is intelligent, fun-loving, and holds together for most of its two-odd hours. And in its own quiet way, it's still the hallmark of good filmmaking. There's nothing perfunctory about the proceedings here. It doesn't take us for granted and it works hard to justify our time and money. The Coens have been better, yes, but that doesn't make The Ladykillers any less entertaining. To those who may wish for more, I offer the admonitions of the General: "Drift like a leaf on a stream... and then kill the old lady."

Review published 03.26.2004.

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