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Alex Stroup, editor

The Ladykillers

Hanks gives over-the-top performance in new Coen Brothers film

Friday, March 26, 2004
by Alex Stroup, staff writer

The Coen Brothers have been looking backwards quite a bit in recent years. Following the originality of Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998) they have made O Brother, Where Are Thou? (2000), The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), and Intolerable Cruelty (2003). While only two of those three were actually set in the past, each was also a look back at earlier eras in filmmaking.

This trend continues with their latest release, The Ladykillers. Not only is this a remake of the 1955 British film of the same name, but it is a chance for the Coen Brothers to attempt (and revel in) a style of caper-farce that proved so profitable to Alec Guinness and England's Ealing Studio. Together they made at least seven films and The Ladykillers was among the best.

As with Intolerable Cruelty, they've taken an old style and moved it to the present. For the most part, the world inhabited by this new edition is timeless. The real world as we live it doesn't really encroach, but events have been moved from an urban London environment on the edge of a train yard to a Deep South rural house near a riverboat casino.

The story still centers on a gang of con men who pretend to be a musical quintet and rent an available room from a kindly old woman. They then use it as the base for planning and executing the theft of a large sum of money (proof of inflation: 60,000 British pounds in the original, $1.6 million in the remake).

©2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

In both, the gang is a ragtag group brought together just for this job. Tom Hanks takes up the Alec Guinness role as the group leader. Garrulous to the point of distraction, and of questionable sanity, Hanks' Professor G.H. Dorr assembled his team through a want ad in the paper.

Even if the film isn't so great, you can always rely on the Coen Brothers to put together at least a couple of highly entertaining sequences. In these caper films, one of the hardest parts is introducing the team without wasting too much time on exposition. In one of the better sequences, the Coen Brothers does just that. Quickly and humorously introducing the trash-talking Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans, in one of his least annoying performances), demolitions expert Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), The General (the refreshingly named Tzi Ma) as a Vietnamese tunneling expert, and finally Lump, as the gang's muscle (Ryan Hurst). See why it is so hard for filmmakers to pull off this necessary sequence? I've put myself to sleep just writing a couple lines to introduce them.

As always, each member of the team has his role (Wayans is the inside man with a job at the casino) and Professor Dorr's is that of the thinker. In both versions of the movie, this character is simply strange. There doesn't seem to be any reason for the strangeness, as it doesn't further the con. So we're left to assume that this is the real person.

Tom Hanks gives an over-the-top performance. And it is his most sincerely comedic performance since A League of Their Own (1992), discounting the Toy Story movies. It is Professor Dorr who secures the apartment, by convincing Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) that he is a professor on sabbatical, working with a musical group on the music of the Renaissance. Dorr speaks with a mixed-up Southern/British accent that strengthens and fades throughout the movie, and he never settles on one word when 15 will do.

Though all the focus is on Hanks, Irma P. Hall is really the key piece of casting. For me, the original film has two major weaknesses. One of them was that the equivalent character, Miss Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) was just too addlepated for my tastes.

In their revising of the character, the Coen Brothers give Marva Munson significantly more heft. Sure, she is undereducated and easily manipulated. But more than anything, that manipulation is not because of vacuousness but because she lives her life according to her heartfelt Christian principles. Because Dorr assures her that their music was inspired by the Gospels, she is convinced to let them practice in her cellar.

Eventually, the movie gets around to the actual caper. This is another vast improvement over the original. Whereas there was never any obvious reason for the Alec Guinness gang to need the room in the house of an easily duped woman, the Coen Brothers have managed to make it central to the whole plan.

Of course, after the caper, Marva discovers that she's been duped, and the movie is on to the final act. The gang decides they have to alter their plan and go about attempting to earn the film's title.

©2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

There are several good scenes or sequences in the movie, but overall it falls a little flat. It was a surprise to find that the movie was only 100 minutes long when the lights came on; it felt longer, which is never a good sign. While Hanks makes a good effort, his character is strange for no reason and it doesn't aid the story.

Comparisons will be made to Johnny Depp's performance in last year's Pirates of the Caribbean, but while that one—for some undefinable reason—worked, it doesn't here. Also, with the accent, loquaciousness, and soft voice of Professor Dorr, it was frequently difficult to understand what he was saying, even if the audience was quiet.

It was a lot of fun, though, and certainly a better option than some of the other stuff opening this weekend (if you go see Scooby Doo 2, I may have to bar you from reading my column). The movie is rated R and earns it with a thoroughly modern vocabulary (mostly from Marlon Wayans and J.K. Simmons), but if that doesn't bother you, then kids from 12 on up have a good chance of enjoying themselves while younger children will probably be too bored with all the talking.

Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.


The Ladykillers is a Touchstone Pictures release

Wide theatrical release: Friday, March 26, 2004

Directed and written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen.

Based on the screenplay by William Rose.

Starring: Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, and Irma P. Hall.

Rated R for mature language including sexual references.

Running time: 104 minutes

Alex's Rating: 7 out of 10


Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.


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