I can hardly overestimate my appreciation for most of the Coen brothers' work. "Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing," "The Big Lebowski," "Fargo," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," and "The Man Who Wasn't There" are among my favorite films. Yet there have been some clinkers along the way, too, like "Barton Fink" and "The Hudsucker Proxy." I'm afraid their 2004 remake of "The Ladykillers" falls into the latter category. It was close, but it didn't make it for me.
Of course, the Coens fashioning a black comedy is hardly news; "Fargo" must be ranked among the best black comedies of all time. So you'd think "The Ladykillers" would be right up their alley. It's just that black comedy or not, "The Ladykillers" contains several gross errors of judgment that must have given the Coens at least some degree of hesitation at some point in the filmmaking process. Or maybe they didn't notice how heavy-handed their approach was compared to their source material.
The story follows the earlier, 1955 Ealing Studios British production in content, if not in spirit. The 1955 film was a charming bit of whimsy starring the incomparable Alec Guinness as the leader of a gang of crooks that included Peter Sellers holed up in the house of a little old lady. When things went awry and the old lady caught on, the gang decided to bump her off, but nothing worked out the way they planned it. She may have appeared old and frail, but like Tweety Bird, she was tougher than she looked.
In the Coens' remake, Tom Hanks plays the part that Guinness first essayed as the erudite head of a band of cutthroat thieves. Hanks is actually quite good as Professor G.H. Dorr, despite his being saddled with the voice and appearance of a young Col. Sanders. The Professor's idea is to rob the counting room of a casino by tunneling into it from a nearby house. The house is owned by an old lady, a widow, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), who has a room to let. Pretending to be the conductor of a small group of period-instrument musicians needing space to rehearse, the Professor directs four accomplices who spend their afternoons tunneling from the basement of Ms. Munson's house to the casino, while Boccherini plays on their portable tape player. Their goal is the removal of $1,600,000.
Most of this setup, plus the introduction of the characters, takes up the first half of the movie, and, frankly, it is not very funny. It is only in the second half, when Munson catches on to their illegal shenanigans and has to be disposed of, does the movie take off and provide a few genuine smiles.
So, why doesn't the film provide the laughs it should? The two reasons I alluded to earlier seem most suspect. First, there's the old lady. In the older movie, the audience was clearly worried about her. In the new movie, audiences can just as clearly see that she is able to take care of herself. From the outset we see that Marva Munson is a big, capable, robust, take-charge sort of woman who could easily fend off half the Iraqi army single-handedly. So when it comes to putting her away, we understand at once it's going to be the crooks who get our sympathy.
The second reason the film fails, however, is a more serious breach of judgment. It's simply too profane. Among the crooks are J.K. Simmons as Garth Pancake, a movie prop man and demolitions expert; Tzi Ma as the General, a martial-artist, donut-shop owner, and tunnel man; Ryan Hurst as Lump Hudson, a numbskull football player acting as the gang's muscle; and Marlon Wayans as Gawain MacSam, a grungy janitor working for the casino and acting as the group's inside man. It's Wayans who's the problem. He is totally out of place, his foul mouth never without a profanity. You've heard this before from him, but it's usually been in appropriately bawdy comedies, not in what should have been a quieter, more subdued farce. Wayans' character earns the movie its R rating "for language and sexual references." It's a shame, really, because not only is the profanity not funny, it ruins the entire tone of the picture.
When Hanks is on screen speaking his erudite gibberish, the movie is quite a delight. When Wayans takes over, it turns into a cess pool. What in the world were the Coens thinking? Was this juxtaposition of characters supposed to be amusing? And what's with the character Lump? He acts not so much big and dumb as big and retarded. We don't so much laugh at him as feel sorry for him. Nor is the Pancake character's irritable bowel syndrome particularly funny, just gross.
Of course, in a Coen brothers film there are bound to be high spots, too. These include the aforementioned Hanks; the photography of the Coens' dependable cameraman, Roger Deakins; the music by Carter Burwell, T-Bone Burnett, the Abbot Kinney Lighthouse Choir, and others; and the comic, cartoonlike attempts to bump off the old lady, each backfiring in Road Runner-Wiley Coyote fashion.
The ending is wonderfully ironic, as expected, but it and the few items mentioned above were not enough to keep this viewer entertained for the movie's 104-minute running time. I suppose a miss is as good as a mile, but I had high hopes. It almost seemed like the Coens were on cruise control making this one.
The image quality is certainly bright enough and the colors solid enough, but the video is also rather dark overall and a tad glassy. On the plus side, the film has been transferred in its original anamorphic widescreen, measuring an enhanced ratio approximately 1.74:1 across a normal television, and the screen shows very little or no grain. On the minus side, the image is very slightly blurry, with minor color bleed-through keeping it from the highest order of video perfection. No one will mind the video image, however, and no one will even notice but nitpickers like me.
The sound comes to us via Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, but there isn't a lot of surround. Five-channel separation is more like three-channel front separation, which is adequate. There is not too wide a frequency range, either, or too much in the way of dynamics, with a rather boomy mid-bass hitting us from time to time. The "however" is that musical interludes are natural and welcome, filling the room with a pleasantly reverberant sound.
I would liked to have heard a little from the Coens themselves on this film, but it was not to be. The three major extras are quite perfunctory, with no audio commentary or documentary. There's "The Slap Reel," about a minute and a half of outtakes featuring Irma P. Hall slapping Marlon Wayans again and again. There's the best item, "Gospel of The Ladykillers," two extended musical numbers by the Abbot Kinney Lighthouse Choir with Rose Stone and the Venice Four. The songs are "Shine on Me" and "Trouble of This World," which were excerpted in the film. Then, there's an eleven-minute featurette, "Danny Ferrington: The Man Behind the Band," which tells about the period instruments that were used in the movie. Finally, there are a meager twelve scene selections; a DVD-ROM computer feature, "The Ladykillers Script Scanner," that I did not access; and some Sneak Peeks at other Buena Vista movies, but only a music-album pitch for "The Ladykillers." English and French are the spoken language options, with French and Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Maybe "The Ladykillers" demonstrates that no matter how appropriate the material may seem for the Coen brothers to handle, if it's already been done before and done well, it should be let alone. The 1955 "Ladykillers" remains a minor comedy classic, while I daresay this 2004 remake will be forgotten by the time you read this.
The humor in "The Ladykillers" seems more appropriate to a bad Farrelly brothers comedy than a Coen brothers production. Still, Coen fans will want to rent it at the very least because there are still a few funny bits in it. But, in the main, the movie is a disappointment from filmmakers we generally count on.