Dir: Joel & Ethan Coen. US. 2004. 104 mins.
After the Coen Brothers' unmemorable Intolerable Cruelty last year, The Ladykillers represents another awkward fusion of their distinctive style and studio-originated material. More suited to their sensibilities than the fizzy screwball high-jinks the brothers attempted to whip up in Cruelty, The Ladykillers is still half-baked Coens, neither the peculiar and delicious pitch-black crime comedy of Blood Simple or Fargo nor the all-out mainstream laugh-out-loud blockbuster they and Disney seemingly wanted to make. Tom Hanks is their star, after all.
The movie is being sold domestically as a mainstream Hanks comedy, despite its 'R' rating, and should enjoy a strong opening weekend on that basis. But if families come to see it expecting big laughs, they will be disappointed by the raw language and macabre plot twists, and word-of-mouth won't keep it at the top for long. Like the ponderous Hanks-starrer Road To Perdition, it may inch past $100m at the domestic box office, but international audiences will be less swayed by Hanks or the package in general, particularly in dubbing territories where the richness of the southern dialogue will be lost in translation. An international launch is being scheduled to coincide with the film's May 18 Cannes Film Festival in-competition screening.
The Ladykillers is, of course, a remake of the 1955 Ealing comedy classic starring Alec Guinness and Katie Johnson, and critics will leap to compare the two, although the original was one of the latest and weakest in the Ealing canon. Still, little of the elegance or indeed the menace behind the comedy in the Alexander Mackendrick-directed film have been retained by the Coens who have shifted the action from post-war London to the contemporary Deep South.
The sweet little old lady Mrs Wilberforce (Johnson) of the first film has been converted into a formidable, bow-legged black Southern Baptist widow called Marva Munson, as played by the engaging Irma P Hall. Talking to a portrait of her dead husband above the mantelpiece, donating $5 a week to the Christian Bob Jones University and singing up a storm at her high-energy local evangelical gospel church, Mrs Munson leads a quiet solitary life in her house in an un-named town.
Enter Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Hanks), a charlatan professor who rents a room in her house in order to use the house as the base for a robbery. He and his gang - Gawain MacSam (Wayans), The General (Tzi Ma), Pancake (Simmons) and Lump (Hurst) - are planning to rob the vault of a nearby floating casino and do so by tunnelling to the vault from Mrs Munson's cellar.
Pretending to be a classical quintet using the cellar for practice, the five crooks swiftly get to work and accomplish their robbery despite much suspicion from their landlady. Indeed when she discovers what they're up to, she demands that they return the money at which point they resolve to kill her.
The Coens have invested the story with considerable invention and some of the dialogue is hilarious, especially from Mrs Munson who takes particular exception to cursing and 'hippity-hoppity music.' Hall, in fact, steals the show even from Hanks whose unthreatening Dorr, all buck-tooth, Edgar Allen Poe poetry and simpering platitudes, lacks the menace with which Guinness so memorably imbued his Professor Marcus.
Unusually for a Coens film, the technical elements of the film are uneven. While most of the production design is stylised and set-bound, notably the bridge from which several characters fall, some of the daylight exteriors (the police station, the casino) are incongruous.
More confusingly, the directors give little sense of geography in the small town to the audience; we know that the casino is close to the Munson house but we are never given clear indication how exactly they are neighboured.
The Coens have once again recruited T Bone Burnett to put together the song score, this time of old gospel staples.
Prod co: Touchstone Pictures
Worldwide dist: Buena Vista/BVI
Prods: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, Tom Jacobson, Barry Sonnenfeld, Barry Josephson
Scr: Joel & Ethan Coen, based on the book by William Rose
Cine: Roger Deakins
Prod des: Dennnis Gassner
Ed: Roderick Jaynes
Mus: Carter Burwell
Main cast: Tom Hanks, Irma P Hall, Marlon Wayans, JK Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, Diane Delano, George Wallace