ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
The Coen Brothers’ Ladykillers is tragically
Starring: Tom Hanks, Irma Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons
Directed by: The Coen Brothers
By Mike Arntfield
Movie Web/ 2004
A CAREFULLY SELECTED CRACK TEAM. Above, Professor Dorr (Tom Hanks) with
a muscle-man, explosives expert and tunneling expert. Below, Dorr nurses
a headache, likely caused by the film, Ladykillers.
In a time of limitless and equally tedious remakes, this reprise of the 1955
British comedy which originally starred Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers
would at first seem to be a refreshing departure from the virtual kaleidoscope
of cinematic stool samples which pepper the contemporary marquee.
In fact, The Ladykillers, by virtue of it not being based on a campy 1970s
TV show, a video game or a fetishized B-movie, would seem to automatically
elevate it to a level of comparative reverence as far as re-adaptations of
existing stories go.
The casting of Hanks in the original Guinness role as the cunning and crafty
professor and criminal mastermind, and the intrepid Coen Brothers as directors,
would also seem to authenticate The Ladykillers as a seamless character piece.
The reality is evident from the outset of the film, however, that despite some
redeeming performances and script writing, the film is inherently flawed by
virtue of its failed attempts to synthesize the old and new.
The underlying story is essentially true to the original, except for the change
of locale from London, England to rural Louisiana, where Goldthwait Higginson
Dorr III PhD (Hanks), a classical studies professor of the most machiavellian
oratory prowess takes up residence in the stately home of a pious church-going
widower in order to carry out his criminal enterprise. That enterprise involves
the pilfering of a river boat casino’s $1.6-million reserve, with the
help of a crack team of unrelated and equally eccentric men of desperation.
Minus some brilliant rhetoric on behalf of Hanks’ character, in addition
to his ingratiating style of speech and his facade of southern gentility, the
viewer is left with little interest in the team of cons who pose as devoted
Renaissance musicians in order to use the home’s basement as a tunnelling
site to the booty.
As a result, the Coen Brothers’ hackneyed attempts at conjuring both
suspense and humour are fruitless, as the viewer is ultimately indifferent
to the fates of what often become downright annoying characters.
Wayans’ stock character in particular is especially patronizing, as
is the role of Garth Pancake, an irritating wretch played by J.K. Simmons,
best known as Dr. Skoda, the psychiatrist in the Law & Order franchise.
In the end it’s Hanks’ performance and some artistic yet subtle
cinematography that keeps the film mildly palatable, although not without great
The juxtaposition between Hanks’ excellent linguistic performance and
what is otherwise an infantile and spoon-fed narrative replete with gratuitous
profanity and bathroom humour lead one to question who the film is targeted.
Equally questionable is whether the Coen Brothers are trying to artistically
remake a film or merely re-invent it for latchkeys, as the dichotomous nature
of the film’s conventions serve to undermine its clandestine moral agenda.
At best, The Ladykillers is a rental.