January 31, 2005
For years, the Coen brothers have been trying to achieve mainstream acceptance. Their first real attempt was with The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). Not even the presence of big-time Hollywood producer Joel Silver helped and the film was a critical and commercial flop. Over the years, the Coens have cast more recognizable names in their movies: Jeff Bridges, George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones in an attempt to garner larger audiences while still remaining true to their oddball cinematic visions. Their last two films, however, have seen them veering dangerously close to Hollywood sell-outs with the charming screwball comedy Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and their latest effort, a cartoonish remake of the classic Alec Guiness black comedy, The Ladykillers (2004).
Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III, Ph.D. (Hanks) is a southern gentlemen seemingly transported from another time and place. He arrives on the doorstep of Ms. Marva Munson (Hall) interested in renting a room in her boarding house and using her basement as a rehearsal space for his band that are planning to perform in the town’s Renaissance Fair. At least, that’s the line he feeds her. Munson’s house is near the accounting offices of a nearby river gambling boat. Dorr and his crew plan to dig a tunnel from the basement of her house to the offices and steal large sums of money from their safe. The rest of the film plays out in a battle of wills, as Dorr and his team try not to arouse Munson’s suspicions but, of course, she ends up being their toughest obstacle.
Tom Hanks is clearly having a blast as the grinning, genteel Dorr who has a way with long-winded speechifying. The veteran actor perfectly pontificates his convoluted monologues and civilized doublespeak. To hear him order something as simple as waffles has to be seen to be believed. Dorr obviously loves hearing the sound of his own voice. In particular, his monologue espousing a love of literature, specifically the works of Edgar Allen Poe, is Hanks at his most deranged and demonstrates his total commitment to his character. Dorr is the kind of buffoon that the Coens love parodying as they have in the past with the aforementioned Intolerable Cruelty and O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). It is nice to see Hanks in a full-out comedy again as he fully immerses himself in his character, complete with a Colonel Sanders look and Foghorn Leghorn dialect.
However, it feels like Dorr’s character has come from another, more substantial Coen brothers movie and is merely slumming it in this one. The supporting cast of characters is just not up to the same inspired Coensesque eccentricity as Dorr. The General (Ma), Garth Pancake (Simmons), Gawain (Wayans) and Lump (Hurst) are all broadly drawn caricatures with the worst being Gawain, a feeble attempt on the Coens part to parody hip hop culture. Unfortunately, the jokes centred on his character come off as stale and simply unfunny, showing how out of touch the Coens are with this culture. To paraphrase Walter from The Big Lebowski (1998), the Coens were out of their element.
The Coens obviously have an affinity for the South (as demonstrated in Raising Arizona and O’ Brother) and they revisit the region that they celebrated so well in O’ Brother. This time out, executive music producer T-Bone Burnett focuses on gospel music with the likes of Rose Stone with The Venice Four and The Abbot Kinney Lighthouse Choir and The Soul Stirrers lending their considerable vocal talents. Sadly, this rousing music doesn’t quite have the prominence that all the wonderful old timey music had in O’ Brother.
“The Gospel of The Ladykillers” allows one to view the entire performances of “Shine on Me” and “Trouble of This World” by The Abbot Kinney Lighthouse Choir with Rose Stone and The Venice Four that were featured prominently in the movie.
The strongest extra is “Danny Ferrington: The Man Behind the Band,” an 11-minute featurette on the man who built the vintage musical instruments that Dorr and his crew pretend to play. Ferrington talks about his career and how he has built instruments for the likes of Johnny Cash, George Harrison and Pete Townsend.
“The Slap Reel” is a tiresome outtake montage of Irma Hall slapping the crap out of poor Marlan Wayans. It wasn’t that funny in the movie and it is even less so with this extra.
Stylistically, The Ladykillers looks and sounds as good as any other Coen brothers film—sadly, it doesn’t have much else going on except for Tom Hanks’ inspired performance. This may be due in large part to the fact that they weren’t even supposed to direct The Ladykillers. This was originally a project intended for Barry Sonnenfeld to direct with the Coens only writing the screenplay. When he dropped out, the Coens took over and it shows. It feels like a half-hearted attempt with the Coens not fully committed. However, I wouldn’t count the Coens down and out yet. There are reports that they are currently working on an original script and let’s not forget that they rebounded from the failure of Proxy with the masterful Fargo (1996).