© 2004 Ray Wong
Ever since FARGO, the Coen brothers have given us a lineup of offbeat, starkly dark comedies with odd touches of American literature and culture: O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY come to mind. Their latest outing, THE LADYKILLERS is equally absurd.
An update of the 1955 original with the incomparable Sir Alec Guinness, THE LADYKILLERS stars Tom Hanks as Professor Godthwait Higginson Dorr, PhD – a name that is a parody in itself. Dorr shows up one day on the doorsteps of Mrs. Munson (Hall, SOUL FOOD), an honest, religious woman who adores her late husband. According to Dorr, he is on sabbatical and in need of a quiet place in the sleepy Mississippi town to nurture his real love for church music. “You’ll find that I’m a quiet man,” Dorr says with glee, “and yet – not so quiet.”
Dorr’s ensemble includes MacSam (Wayans, SCARY MOVIE), Pancake (Simmons, SPIDER-MAN), the General (Ma, THE QUIET AMERICAN) and Lump (Hurst, WE WERE SOLDIERS). They congregate in Mrs. Munson’s root cellar every day and night for practice. Little does she know that Dorr & company is planning a heist to rob the riverboat casino, using the cellar to tunnel into the casino’s vault. In a true Coen-esque fashion, little does Dorr know that Mrs. Munson would prove to be a “more formidable antagonist” than he had imagined.
THE LADYKILLERS is a clever, peculiar piece, though the writing is smart but inconsistent. Whenever Dorr breaks into one of his phony, quasi literary recitations, one cannot help but chuckle at the absurdity. The scenes with Dorr and Mrs. Munson exude certain southern charm and – oddly so – sincerity. The writers have planted enough foreshadowing to make the climatic scenes amusing. The scenes involving the quintet of crooks, however, are too over the top. Some of the characters tend to overuse expletives ad nauseam, even in the context of the situation and the characters’ personalities. I think the Coen brothers have sacrificed deeper and more satisfying character developments in exchange for a clever, almost sinister plot (especially in the outrageous climax). We never really know who these people are and why they are there (beside the money). Perhaps the writers do it on purpose – so that we will not care too much about what finally happens to these characters. We become detached from these characters like we are watching cartoon figures instead of real people. I do think that the ending would have been more poignant and hilarious at the same time had we truly care about these characters.
After over a decade of dramatic endeavors, Hanks returns to his comedic roots with great flare. Here, he plays Dorr with wicked charm and a sly demeanor that is truly delicious. By far his eccentric portrayal has the most complex dimensions, shapes, and forms. Hall, as the earthy Mrs. Munson, provides a quietly strong counterpoint to Hanks’ sardonic high notes. She is someone we can all root for, and we do. Wayans can play the kind of smug, loud-mouthed punk almost in his sleep. Simmons must have the time of his life playing the animated pyrotechnic expert who always tries to get a bigger share. Ma is funny as the stern military man who utters no more than ten words in the entire film, four being “shoot her, shoot her.” Hurst plays the dim-witted and unfortunate Lump with the most heart, but his character is simply too light to make any true impression. The Coen brothers seem to have a love affair with southern gospel music, which, together with the languid landscape of the Mississippi town, provides the film with a rich and lively backdrop. Unfortunately, the direction is unfocused: the first half drags while the climax zips along in high speed. The scenes of Dorr and Mrs. Munson, and the ones with the ensemble of crooks seem to belong to two different films. It could have been a much better film. It just kills me.
Stars: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J. K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language
Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 5
Cinematography – 6
Editing – 6
Production – 6
Total – 6.1 out of 10