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The Ladykillers (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

The Ladykillers


Starring Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, Diane Delano, George Wallace, John McConnell, Jason Weaver, Stephen Root, Baadja-Lyne Odums, Walter Jordan, George Anthony Bell, Greg Grunberg and Hallie Singleton.

Screenplay by William Rose, Joel and Ethan Coen.

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Distributed by Touchstone Pictures. 100 minutes. Rated R.

The Ladykillers is an odd duck of a movie. Now, it’s certainly not surprising that a film by the notoriously quirky Coen brothers would be offbeat, but this is off-the-radar strange, even for them. Which puts the movie into a weird little dilemma, all the characters are so over-the-top and cartoonish that even when what they do or say is funny… and there is a good deal of amusing stuff happening… the audience is not at all invested into the characters. It is nearly impossible to gain any rooting interest for or against the group who populate this world, just because they don’t appear to be people like any others that we ever have met.

Tom Hanks plays Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr III, Ph.D., a man as fussy and rigid as his name. He claims to be a Professor of dead romance languages and rents a room from a good-hearted widowed church lady (Irma P. Hall) so that he and his friends can practice ensemble pieces of “renaissance music.”

His real plan is to use the good-natured Bible belt woman’s root cellar to have his gang forage a tunnel into the vault of the offices of a nearby riverboat casino. The gang is made up of more ciphers, Marlon Wayans plays the janitor working as an inside man at the casino, J.K. Simmons is the eccentric detonation expert, Tzi Ma is the cold-hearted tunneling expert and Ryan Hurst is the dim-witted, but good-hearted muscle.

As far as Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Dorr, I suspect that most people will either truly love it or absolutely hate it. There is little room for a middle ground. Personally, I found it an intriguing, but ultimately perplexing and distracting. Dorr appears to be a strange mish-mash of Col. Sanders, Peter Lorre, Elmer Fudd and the piano player from Reefer Madness.

To call it over-the-top would be redundant, Hanks is chewing scenery with such gusto that his performance reaches surreal levels, particularly when he occasionally starts to chortle right in the middle of a sentence. Yes, I know that was the point of the character, but it doesn’t make it any less confounding. I do believe that Hanks was doing the character just as the Coens imagined him, though. If that is the case, then he really did nail the role, strange as it may seem to say.

The only character that reverberates to the audience in any good way, though she is a cartoon character too, is that of the widow Marva. Yes, Marva is a bit of a stereotype, the robust black woman who feels that everything outside of church is the devil’s work and will not stand for any guff. However, at least she is recognizable as springing from a real human type.

A running gag about Marva sending monthly checks to Bob Jones University because it is a bible school is funny, however it is amusing at the expense of the character. Marva is a smart, no-nonsense woman who is constantly talking about the school, I can’t believe for a second that she would not have heard of that University’s reputation. In another scene she is talking to the sheriff (George Wallace) about African-American pride and she refers to it being “the age of Montel.” Again, it’s a clever line, but it’s trying so hard to be sharp that it diminishes the character saying it.

Oh, I do have to say, though, that Marva’s pet Pickles is the best feline character in the movies is a good long time. You may have to go all the way back to Harry & Tonto (1974) to find such a good cat performance.

As with most Coen brothers’ films, The Ladykillers has a strange timelessness. It looks and acts very old-fashioned, but apparently takes place in the modern day. The cinematography is lovely and some of the shots are breath taking. For example, a shot of a tugboat tugging a huge barge full of trash up a river is shockingly majestic. (Particularly the first time you see it, later story developments lead you to believe that this trip is an hourly occurrence in this town.)

I have never seen the classic British film of the same name with Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, which this is loosely based on. However, my understanding is that the criminals are desperate to be unobtrusive and the elderly lady that they board with at least appears to be frail. That seems to make a lot more sense as a story. Honestly, the criminals here don’t look like they ever had a chance in going up against a force of nature like Marva.

I did enjoy a great deal of The Ladykillers, and yet at the same time I’m not sure I could say I consider it a particularly good movie. I’m glad that the Coens are always willing to try something new and different with their work.  The cinema needs more visionaries like them. However, I think this one is going to have to be filed under failed experiments. (3/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: March 29, 2004.

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