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The Ladykillers

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Ladykillers

Starring: Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans
Director: Joel Coen
Rated: R
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: March 2004
Genres: Comedy, Suspense

*Also starring: Irma P. Hall, Ryan Hurst, Stephen Root, George Wallace, J.K. Simmons, Freda Foh Shen, Tzi Ma, Walter K. Jordan, Jennifer Echols, Jason Weaver

Review by Jerry Saravia
3½ stars out of 4

The Coens have done it again. In 2003, they made one of the unfunniest comedies ever made, "Intolerable Cruelty." In 2004, they have crafted one of their funniest works by far, "The Ladykillers." Though the concept and ideas behind this dark comedy are not new, the Coens's wit and sharp edges enhance this caper comedy to the max. Like I said, the Coens have fooled me again.

The opening shot is vintage Coens. It is a high-angle view of a bridge separated by two gargoyles while a barge passes underneath. It may not mean much to most but it establishes the tone immediately - death looms in the horizon. Then the Coens continue their playful digressions by introducing Marva (Irma P. Hall), a churchgoing no-nonsense woman who despises hip-hop music (especially the recurring use of the N-word). She complains about such music to the police, who pay her no mind. One sunny day, a genteel, goateed professor, known as Professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks), inquires about renting the room in her house. This professor is not the quiet type - he talks incessantly and speaks in the florid tones of his favorite authors. In other words, like some real-life professors, he speaks nothing but gibberish. Marva is not easily misled but she does allow him to rent the room when he mentions his classical music band and the necessary rehearsals for an upcoming concert.

Of course, the Professor is not what he seems - he is a robber who plans to steal money from the Bandit Queen casino. The idea is to crack through Marva's cellar door walls and make a tunnel to the casino. He gets help from Pancake (J.K. Simmons), an explosives expert, who has a girlfriend named Mountain; Lump (Ryan Hurst), a dumb football player, who can tear down the walls; Gawain (Marlon Wayans), a Bandit Queen janitor who has access to the money; and the General (Tzi-Ma), a Vietnamese chain-smoker who knows a thing or two about tunnels. The good Professor must find ways of evading the police (who turn up at Marva's house) and pretend they are in a band while tunnelling their way through her cellar (they keep a cassette player handy to play classical music).

"The Ladykillers" is one of those rare delights in movies where the characters, as cliched as they may be, keep the movie running at a lively pace (though the plot turns may be predicted by most). Part of the charm are the actors who do their damnedest not to go over the hill for laughs. Tom Hanks gives one of his most playful, energetic performances in a long while, focusing on the character's brand of peculiar, intellectual speech patterns that I never thought he could muster with such finesse. Marlon Wayans gives us the pizazz of a real live-wire, and his facial reactions are sidesplittingly funny (including an encounter with Pancake and his girlfriend at the Waffle House). J.K. Simmons gives us a mustachioed explosives expert who would be right at home in a Warner Brothers cartoon - his Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms during moments of crisis are extreme yet done with the right touch of sly humor. And Tzi-Ma's Vietnamese General is a masterful performance of silent comedy - he handles cigarettes with a magician's ease. But the highlight of the film is Irma P. Hall's Marva, delivering some of the best one-liners in the film. Her own speeches to the portrait of her late husband are also a major tickle to the funny bone - she has the energy and confidence of a woman who will not back down from her own decisions.

"The Ladykillers" is the remake of the Alec Guinness picture of the same name, and though it is not nearly as sublime as its original counterpart, it is in a class all its own. The Coens have many tricks up their sleeves and aim to deliver with the spit and polish that is lacking in many of their outrageous comedies. It is a cartoon alright, and damned if I wasn't laughing through the end credits.

Copyright 2004 Jerry Saravia

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