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
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