Review: The Ladykillers

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  March 26, 2004 @ 11:59am

Filed under: Movie Reviews 

Marva Munson (Irma P.Hall) is a simple woman living in the deep South somewhere along the Bible belt. A widow, she lives at home with her cat Pickles and regularly attends church services on Sunday with a group of her friends. Being a widow and living in a rather large house, she rents a room out to supplement her income and for some human companionship. After kicking out her last tenant for blasting that hippity-hop music and making numerous noise complaints to the police, she finds herself without a tenant. As luck would have it, a mysterious stranger appears on her door step and after some commotion introduces himself as Professor G.H. Dorr Ph.D (Tom Hanks) and it so happens that he's looking to rent a room. The two soon hit it off when Dorr learns of the existence of a root cellar where he and his travelling musicians can practice. However, Dorr is not as he appears, as he's assembled a group of criminals including Gawain MacSam the inside man (Marlon Wayans), Garth Pancake (J.K Simmons), Lump (Ryan Hurst), and an ominous man calling himself The General (Tzi Ma). Together they have a plan to rob the nearby riverboat casino "The Bandit Queen". Their plan involves tunneling through Ms. Munson's basement and into an underground holding room, and taking the money through that way. The only problem is that none of them are highly accomplished criminals and through a series of mistakes they manage to almost get themselves caught. Add to this that Ms. Munson is a more formidable opponent than they originally thought and you get the basis of Joel and Ethan Coen's The Ladykillers.

Loosely based on the screenplay of a 1955 Alec Guinness movie of the same name, Joel and Ethan Coen have updated The Ladykillers for the new millennium. Sharing only minor things in common with its predecessor, this film should not be considered a remake but more of a new take on the previous material. The Coen Brothers, best known for Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and most recently Intolerable Cruelty, have a history of quirky offbeat comedy, and while this film treads along similar lines, it's probably one of their more mainstream efforts and certainly not anywhere near their best work. The film's screenplay is a difficult one to judge because at times the film is damn near hilarious and at others it drags just a bit too much and becomes bogged down in seemingly unimportant details. As much as I was laughing I was quiet waiting for the next joke. Some of the material that was meant to be funny, including a character with IBS, simply falls flat and the film's third act becomes problematic and boring after the story is seemingly over at around the 65 or 70 minute mark. That said, there are many aspects about the film to like and it's certainly more entertaining than the trailer makes it out to be. One that stands out more than others is the film's dialogue, though some of it can be hard to understand given the various dialects of the characters.

The Coen Brothers write strong characters and with the exception of one or two of the more minor parts, that is the case here. Tom Hanks stars in the lead role and does broad comedy for the first time in a decade. Hanks is one of those actors who can throw himself into the part and he does exactly that as G.H. Dorr. Disguised behind makeup and a false set of teeth, Hanks is in good form as the smart-talking but bumbling criminal. He's extremely likable in this role and so in a way you actually root for the guy in the end. Playing his arch nemesis as it were is Irma P. Hall, who actually upstages everyone in her scenes as the no-nonsense church-going Marva. This is one old lady you don't want to cross as she's not afraid to slap you upside the head to get you back on the straight and narrow. Also impressive was Marlon Wayans as the tough talking but street smarts-lacking Gawain, whose use of profanity is extreme but expected. The most disappointing performance comes from J.K Simmons from Oz and Law and Order, whose underwritten Garth Pancake doesn't seem to have any real point to the proceedings. It's like they added him to butt heads with Wayans' Gawain and as a fan of the actor I was disappointed. Coolest character award goes to the silent General who is just too cool for words.

The Ladykillers is a fun comedy that doesn't always hit its mark. It aims high and comes out a bit low. It does feature the typical Coen Brothers dialogue and strong characters, but the story seems considerably underdeveloped and once the big heist happens halfway through the film, there's really nothing left to do. The third act is weak and almost seems to come from a different movie. Strong performances from Hanks, Hall, Wayans, and Tzi Ma make this a watchable popcorn movie and a decent "R" rated comedy. Still, given the tremendous talent involved, I can't help but think this film could have been much better. Tighten up the story, plug a few plot holes, and rely more on strong dialogue than dumb site gags and potty jokes, and The Ladykillers would be that much better. Still worth seeing for the performances alone, I'll give a light recommendation to The Ladykillers.

Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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