The Coen Brothers, as we all know, have an amazing track record. On Rotten Tomatoes, they only have two films that are deemed rotten: The Hudsucker Proxy (which is baffling) and The Ladykillers. Outside of those two, their lowest rated film is Intolerable Cruelty at 75%. One of two remakes that the Coens have made, the other being True Grit, The Ladykillers is often considered the worst of the duo’s films. Even if The Ladykillers is the worst Coen Brothers film – I think that honor is bestowed upon Intolerable Cruelty, which is still a fairly good movie – it only reaffirms that the siblings have made exclusively above average films.
The 1955 original, produced by England’s Ealing Studios, was directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. It’s a film that is as darkly comic as it British. The Coens transpose the tale to the Deep South. Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) is a widower living all alone in her home. One day she is approached by Professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks) who wants to rent a room, telling her that he’d like to rehearse music in the cellar with his band. But none of them play any instruments. They’re planning a massive heist of a local casino, tunneling underground into the casino vault. There’s Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), the demolition expert, GaWain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), the inside man, The General (Tzi Ma), the tunneling expert, and Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst), the dumb muscle. Their perfect plan soon crumbles when they are discovered by Marva. Placed in a corner, the 5 criminals must kill her or face certain incarceration.
With its gleeful profanity and old gospel soundtrack, I’m still entirely unsure why The Ladykillers failed to connect with critics and audiences alike. It contains certain Coen hallmarks like dialogue with a razor-sharp wit, the beautiful naturalistic cinematography of Roger Deakins, and a criminal element in over their head. For a Coens’ film it’s a rather straightforward work, lacking the oddball and unanswerable elements that populate their work.
Which is not say the film is simplistic. There’s a theistic element to the film that has never been given much discussion. In order to secure his room at Marva’s home, the Professor lies to her repeatedly, going as far to say his fictional band plays devotional music. When the criminals are out to murder Marva, she’s seemingly protected by the Hand of God, distributing divine retribution to the wicked. When the evil has been smote, Marva is left with millions left over from the heist. She alerts the authorities, whom she frequently nags for various frivolous reasons, but they think this is another trivial, if not crazy, Marva moments, and tell her to keep the money. The righteous are rewarded. All of this is tied into a sermon given earlier in the film.
There’s also an element of culture clash present in the film. Having survived Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, Marva takes her grievances with hip hop lyrics to the sheriff, taking particular exception to I Left My Wallet in El Segundo by A Tribe Called Quest. Her issues with hip hop culture are personified in Wayan’s GaWain, who she has no problem smacking around for his disrespectful language.
One of the great strengths of The Ladykillers probably explains its lukewarm reaction with audiences, though it doesn’t take critics off the hook. That is the casting of Tom Hanks. One of the most likable actors around, Hanks is playing a liar determined to kill a little old lady which may not sit well with people who associate him with his affable persona. But it’s a return to form for Hanks, who had gotten his start in comedy and has all but abandoned it. At the time of its release, The Ladykillers was Hanks’ first straight comedy in 15 years and in the decade since he’s yet to return to comedy.
Among other Coen trademarks in the film is the casting of Stephen Root and J.K. Simmons, two regular players for the duo, and a brief cameo by their old friend Bruce Campbell. When compared to his other roles for the Coens, like the blind recording engineer in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Root is especially subdued as the manager of the casino. Simmons shines as the demolition expert afflicted with irritable bowel syndrome. His character possess a certain detachment from criminal protocol, and his one scene as a dog wrangler for a pet food commercial is incredible in its morbid hilarity. Another little Coen trademark that is slipped in is a clever nod to Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. The portrait of Marva’s late husband hovering over the household like a specter, and is repeatedly shown in cutaways for comedic effect.
There’s one repeated gag throughout the film that I can recall being the only person cracking up to when I saw it in theaters, and that’s Marva’s donations to Bob Jones University. A religious college in South Carolina, Bob Jones University refused to accept any black students until 1971, and banned interracial dating until 2000. To Marva, all that matter that it was a Christian school and she faithfully sends her 5-dollar donation every month. When left with the loot from the heist, she proudly declares her intent to donate all the money to the school.
I understand that Coens have set the bar rather high for themselves and it becomes easy to look at works like The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty as disappointments. It’s kind of the same way I thought of Shutter Island as a disappointment – “It was good but I expect more from Martin Scorsese,” I told myself. But a lesser Coens work is better than, at least, 80% of the movies out there. The Ladykillers works on its own terms as a foul-mouthed black comedy that takes its inspiration from a classic but molds the material into something entirely its own. There are a lot of laughs in The Ladykillers, and if you give it chance, you won’t have to look hard to find them. It’s criminally underrated.