A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, R, 104 mins.

Professor G.H. Dorr: Tom Hanks / Marva Munson: Irma P. Hall / Gawain MacSam: Marlon Wayans / Garth Pancake: J.K. Simmons / The General: Tzi Ma / Lump: Ryan Hurst / Mountain Girl: Diane Delano

Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen /  Based on the 1955 screenplay by William Rose

The Coen Brothers have always recklessly flirted with modern audience sensibilities and tastes.  They have that sort of unbridled audacity and nerve to find that strange and distant middle ground between contemporary acceptability and their own trademark dark humour, quirky and offbeat style, and singular farcical overtones. They are about as non-traditional and irreverent with their own inherent subject matter.  I think in many ways, the Coen Brother’s films are of the distinctly "love it or leave it" variety.   Many embrace their style while many more simultaneously stare at the screen in disbelief and try to digest its oddness for what it is. 

Their newest entry into the strange and wacky, a remake of the 1955 Alec Guiness British film, is THE LADYKILLERS, and it, more or less, represents the Coens that are somewhat marginalized in terms of style (their trademark visual flourishes seem a bit vacant here, perhaps in a effort to be more viewer friendly), but it still has enough genuine laughs and a couple of truly funny characters to give it a passable recommendation.  The Coens may have been largely inconsistent since they reached their peak with 1996’s FARGO (one of the best films of the 1990’s) and THE LADYKILLERS is not as funny as their farcical riot that was last year’s INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, but it nevertheless made me laugh enough in the right places, not to mention that the Coen’s magic for all things perplexing is apparent.  It, like their previous efforts, is a wickedly humorous dark farce.

The film stars Tom Hanks as one of the least straightforward men to grace the silver screen in modern film memory.  He plays the wonderfully named Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, who as the film opens, claims to have a PHD in Latin and Greek.  He’s a highly odd character to look at as well, who seems to be the love child of Boss Hog from the Dukes of Hazard with equal parts Colonel Sanders of everyone’s favourite fried chicken eatery.  He kind of carries that sort of warm-hearted, but vaguely pompous and aristocratic sensibility that feels like he just walked off a Tennessee Williams play.  He also has a predilection to quote the famous words of Edgar Allen Poe (which provide for some of the film’s better laughs). 

He is, on the exterior, the absolute living embodiment of an upper class Southern Gentleman who plays the part so suave, so mannered, and so pitch perfect in terms of language that you may find yourself laughing at him more than with him.  He has that carefully mannered way of speaking everything in round about kind of way.  When he and his business partners have breakfast at the local Waffle Hut, he dignifies to the waitress, “Madam, We must have waffles! We must all have waffles forthwith! We must think, and we must all have waffles, and think each and everyone of us to the best of his ability.” 

The film opens in the smallest of small southern towns, Saucier, and Dorr is looking for a room to rent.  He comes to the quaint little home of a sweet little old lady named Marva (the wonderfully funny Irma P. Hall, who nearly steals the film).  He is disarmingly charming with the old and naïve lady, and his elegant and complicated manner of speaking often leads to her ambivalence (“I hold a number of other advanced degrees, including the baccalaureate from a school in Paris, France, called the Sorbonne, “ Hanks explains to Marva, to which she dryly deadpans back, “Sore Bone?  That sure fits!”). 

Martha eventually agrees to rent the room to Dorr, under the impression that he is a classical music instructor and only plans to play “beautiful music of the Lord” in her basement cellar.  Little does she know, however, that Door and his team are not musicians, but rather petty thieves.  Dorr and company engage in an ingenious scheme to use Marva’s house as a base of operations (as a humorously drawn map later shows) to tunnel deep into the soil of Saucier and dig a hole to a nearby Casino boat and rob it of its millions.  Marva is completely unaware of these plans, as Dorr uses a boom box playing music (conveniently) to hide and mask their digging. 

Dorr’s partners seem like the unorthodox dream team of colourful and whimsical characters that only the Coens could dream up.  First, there’s Garth Pancake (played very, very drolly by J.K. Simmons, who was also riotously funny in the SPIDER-MAN films as Peter Parker’s boss), an explosive expert with a bad case of IBS (he explains, Irritable Bowel Syndrome).  We also have Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayons) as the inside “man” who moonlights as a wise-talking janitor of the casino boat.  The third member is The General (Tzi Ma), probably the coldest and most explosively violent convenience store owner you’ll ever want to buy a Slurpee from, and finally Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst), a mindless zombie that provides the team with the necessary “muscle” they require. 

Lump, as with many of the Coen’s past characters, seems to hold more in tune with the comedic sensibilities of the 30’s and 40’s, but the brother’s show that sometimes simpletons can be hilarious as well.  The film does a fairly decent job of introducing us to the team and the other characters – we see MacSam slack off at work, bare witness to the cunning and explosive finger fighting techniques of The General at work, and also see the incredible lack of athletic prowess that Lump has on the football field (in an inspired Coen moment, the entire scene is filmed from his point of view from his helmet, and leads to one big laugh).   

The film, as a farce, is filled with caricature after caricature, and the Coens swim confidently into these waters.  Every moment Hanks is on screen shines with his characters outwardly intelligent demeanour, but petty intentions buried beneath.  It’s a brilliantly eccentric performance, and Hanks instinctively realizes to balance broad over-acting with subtlety.  It's actually a real hoot just to watch Hanks meandering into speeches of double-meaning and complexity that may make you listen more closely than you'll otherwise be expected to. 

The film is filled to the rim with Dorr’s penchant for the flowery and methodical speech patterns, as when Marva tells him she thinks she heard an explosion.  Hank wryly responds, “Well... uh... properly speaking, madam, we are surprised. You are taken aback. Though I do acknowledge that the sense that you intend is gaining increasing currency through its use, yes.”  When Marva grows ever-so-suspicious (and rightfully so) of Dorr’s true colors, he explains back to her, “Oh, indeed, indeed. The thirst for knowledge is a very commendable thing. Though I do believe that when you hear the explanation you shall laugh riotously, slappin' your knee and perhaps even wipin' away a giddy tear, relieved of your former concern.”  Every time Hanks is on screen, the film gels, especially in his early scenes with Marva.   Marva, despite having tendencies to talk to the portrait of her dead husband, and suffering from being largely innocuous to the proceedings of the men, seems like the most grounded comic figure in the film.  She too is exaggerated by the Coens for effect, but she feels more sincere in her performance and her relative earthiness is an effective comic foil to the oddness of Dorr and his men. 

The other supporting characters are also a broad, but mixed bag, of funny, over-the-top figures.  I especially liked Simmons as Pancake, whose mishap while demonstrating the proper technique of dealing with explosives concludes with hilarity.  He is like Dorr in his pride with his work and has a specific manner of relaying his thoughts (perhaps the most hilarious moment in the film occurs when a character appears to be dead and Pancake deadpans, “I’ll make sure by checking his carotid artery.”  He then pronounces the person as dead, to which Dorr asks how he could be sure.  Pancake retorts, “Well, I just told you I checked his carotid artery.”)  

Pancake also has many inspired moments when he discusses the cruel particulars of his battle with IBS (“It afflicts millions worldwide, ya know").  I really like the minimalist performance by Tzi Ma as The General, who says little, but achieves great comic effect with so few words.  When faced with the prospect of several members of his team telling Dorr that they must kill Marva, Dorr turns to The General and asks, “General, you are a Buddhist. Perhaps there is some middle way to solve this problem,” to which he responds (in the film’s funniest line), “Float like leaf on river of life... and kill old lady.”  The second biggest laugh comes at poor Lump’s expense, and, not to give anything away, but if you remember the fate of Wheezy Joe in INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, you kind of get the idea.

The film is not completely successful, as it has as many failed comic possibilities as ones that do shine.  Marlon Wayans is the film’s only bleak spot, whose foul manner seems to taint the overall simple tone of the film.  Now, I am the last person to say that vulgarity offends me (oftentimes, it can have a cathartic comic effect), but with Wayans he’s in such overkill mode that it kind of distracts from the film’s nostalgic farcical tone.  Using four and twelve letter variations serves purposes in some films, but here it's largely an irritant and unnecessary. 

He does have one funny scene at the expense of his dirty mouth, where Martha slaps him silly and yells, “There’ll be no hippity-hop language in this house.”  This initial joke wears its welcome, especially when it occurs again later.  The film also has a tendency to meander away from itself sometimes (a few scenes in a church featuring gospel music seem to have no relevant point) and seems to lose some focus as it progresses.  It's definitely not the sharpest and polished comic work of the Coen’s recent career, and their trademark visual style seem s to have faltered a bit (despite an aesthetically good looking opening montage, and a visual involving a floating garbage barge that’s re-used for comic effect later). 

THE LADYKILLERS is not great Coen Brothers, and it comes nowhere near the sort of subversive comic darkness that made some of their other films classics.  Yet, despite its problems, the film is still a fairly funny few hours, highlighted by some truly inspired comic performances, especially by Hanks and Hall, who play off one another terrifically.  It's part comedy of manners, part capper picture, part lurid crime noir (the conclusion is not a happy one, especially for Hanks and Company), and all Coen Brothers farce.  Some viewers may be bewildered by what the Coens do in their work, but there’s no denying the fact that I laughed hard and often during THE LADYKILLERS, and it often gets laughs in the least expected places.  It’s not classic Coen Brothers, but it still maintains that quirky and strange edge that separates their work from other lesser comedies of the day.  THE LADYKILLERS is droll and bizarre, and what else could we have expected from the masters of outlandish?

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