Academy Award-winning Tom Hanks turns in a hilariously original performance in The Ladykillers, the laugh-out-loud comedy that explodes with outrageous wit and slapstick humor from the Coen Brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo). Underneath Professor G.H. Dorr’s (Hanks) silver-tongued southern gentleman persona is a devious criminal who’s assembled a motley gang of thieves to commit the heist of the century by funneling through his churchgoing landlady’s root cellar to a casino’s vault of riches. But these cons are far from pros. As their scheme begins blowing up in their faces, their landlady smells a rat. And when she threatens to call the police, they figure they’ll just bump her off. After all, how hard can that be? Wickedly funny from start to finish, it would be a crime to miss The Ladykillers.
eyelights: the soundtrack. the intention.
eyesores: its joylessness. the cartoonish performances. the cgi.
‘The Ladykillers’ is a remake of the classic 1955 British comedy. I recall the Coens saying that it wasn’t really a remake, but that it was inspired by the original. I don’t know where I remember this from (and how sharp my memory is), but there’s no way that this movie was inspired by the original: it is “inspired” by almost all of the same ingredients that made the other as popular and successful as it was – if one were to compare the two, or make a chart, one would see just how similar they are.
Except for its cast, location and tone, of course. The tone (unfortunately in this case), is everything.
You see, the original was a black comedy; it offered a mix of situational humour with a black edge. This latest iteration of the same story, transfers the humour to a more slapstick-y level, turning it more akin to a slapstick noir. It’s not that there is so much physical comedy, but it focuses on exaggerated performances and a few physical gags to make its audience laugh.
This changes everything.
Whereas the original was a subtly humourous film, this one tends to want to BONK people on the head somewhat (case-in-point, the casting of a Wayan brother, the Wayans being some of the least subtle comedians around). It’s not to say that the Coens devolved their usually quirky brand of humour to make a low-brow comedy, but it’s certainly the closest that they’ll ever get.
And it doesn’t really work.
To be fair, though, this was never intended to be their project. This was originally conceived by them as a vehicle for director Barry Sonenfeld – until he stepped out of the picture, that is. Then they decided to take it over themselves. So, perhaps as a Sonenfeld film, this version of ‘The Ladykillers’ would have worked, but it doesn’t as a Coen Brothers’ effort.
You have to give them points for the intention, however: meant as a farce, ‘The Ladykillers’ goes through all the correct motions to hit every beat at the correct time. The chief issue is it joylessness – it feels more like a failed exercise in style than as something fun, that not only would the audience enjoy, but that its players reveled in as well.
If they did, one can hardly feel it – everyone goes through the motions, or gives substandard performances:
– Tom Hanks plays D.H. Dorr with an accent that didn’t fit him well at all, plus he seemed slightly puffy and caricatured. It’s as though he were performing for a stage play, but didn’t have his heart in it whatsoever. It was one of his most unnatural performances to date, far too exaggerated to enjoy. He plays the ring leader, the mastermind, a man so pretentious it’s almost funny – until we realize that he must be a moron for hiring the idiot crew he’s working with. Alas, being a central figure here, he is unavoidable. Unfortunately.
– Marlon Wayans is as annoying as the Wayans often are: his key expression was bug-eyed and dumb-founded, with a penchant for hysteria. He basically plays a stereotype: a nigga and wannabe playa who happens to be working as a cleaner in a casino – hence why he’s on the job. Why else would he be hired?
– Ryan Hurst plays Lump, the group’s muscle. He’s a drooling idiot that can do nothing but somewhat respond to commands. This performance is so over-the-top that I couldn’t watch it without wincing and being taken out of the picture. Hurst played him like someone with an I.Q. of 30 or 40, basically enough for motor function but that’s about it. It proved grating within seconds.
– Then there was the old lady, played by Irma P. Hall , the woman in whose home the brigands hole up to plan and initiate their caper. In the original, she was a sweet, but pesky, little woman. In this version, she is an irritable -and oft-irritating- stereotype – an old widow pining for her husband and complaining about every single thing that remotely disrupts her. She is not a pleasant character at all, and her flaws are difficult to ignore. Seeing as she is one of the central characters, her presence makes the movie more difficult to enjoy.
The rest of the cast, thankfully, is passable.
The whole caper is also ridiculous, because, not only does it so happen that the house they need to burrow from has a room for rent (what a coincidence!), but the plan is contingent on such elements as the Wayan kid keeping his job, or disguising the sounds of their travails with a ghetto blaster (which worked in the original because all they ever did on site was work out their plan – they actually executed it elsewhere). Again, I think that the Coens were purposely trying to make it ridiculous, but it somehow didn’t come off that way – it came off as sloppy, ill-conceived.
Consequently, to anyone who thinks that Joel and Ethan Coen can do no wrong, my counter-argument is: ‘The Ladykillers’. They should have gone broad, or subtle, with this one – not somewhere halfway mixed in with their trademark quirks. It just doesn’t work; it’s inherently flawed. I don’t even believe that a better cast would have improved it (who knows, though, perhaps it would have…).
I truly hate to have to give the Coen brothers low marks for anything, given the heights at which they can soar, but one has to admit that they aren’t sure-fire winners every single time. They’re a good gamble, for sure, but ‘The Ladykillers’ would have been an ill-placed bet.
Date of viewing: January 14, 2013