Director Spotlight: The Ladykillers
Despite the misconception there are really three Coens. There’s the “playing it straight” Coens, the “quirky” Coens, and the “so freakishly bizarre that a word has not yet been invented to attribute to that style of film making” Coens. I tend towards the latter, but the two former are just as good. The Ladykillers, a remake of the 1955 comedy of the same name, is one of those rare treasures that manages to incorporate elements of all three, making for a well rounded flick.
Tom Hanks leads a strangely diverse cast, playing G.H. Dorr, a con man who is looking to relieve a local casino of some of its “earnings”. Dorr enlists the help of several miscreants of the oddest sort to help with the plan. The scheme hinges on the team’s ability to tunnel their way into the casino through an elderly woman’s root cellar without her learning of the undertaking.
In the Poetics, Aristotle stated that, “Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.” As The Ladykillers draws towards it close, the line between tragedy and comedy becomes blurred, while the team of swindlers get more and more greedy, leading to progressively more horrendous acts. The casino heist is initially described as a victim-less crime, which may in fact be true, but once the plot is discovered by Marva Munson, Dorr’s landlady, thoughts turn to murder. It’s at this pivotal moment that we begin to really see the men at their worst, while still maintaining the integrity of the comedic storyline.
While not the most groundbreaking film in terms of plot, acting, or narrative structure, The Ladykillers manages to underplay some of what has made the Coens successful, while still incorporating just enough. The premise is real enough, while the execution utilizes some of the quirky structure Coens fans have come to appreciate and love. At certain points the story, as well as the comedy itself, takes a dip in quality. A good example might be when Marlon Wayans’ foul mouthed, ill tempered character takes a severe beating from Munson, with a pillow no less, causing him to submit. Not too unusual or out of the ordinary, but it does come across as something you might see in a Tyler Perry movie, in order to get cheap laughs. And while not all Coenesque humor has to be derived from a surreal origin, they don’t typically play up to audiences for the cheap laughs.
It would be easy, and almost expected, to say that Hanks was astounding in his role, but really the whole cast was outstanding. J.K Simmons was amazing as the explosives expert with IBS (another cheap device for laughs) and Irma P. Hall does a great job as the dutiful old landlady. There are points at which the cast coalesces so well, that you’d swear this was their fifth or sixth film all working together. The great ensemble cast more than makes up for the lack of structural components that are missing.
Ultimately, The Ladykillers is worth seeing if you are looking to immerse yourself into the oeuvre of the Coens. Not the best film in the catalog, but certainly a nice selection for fans of the director/brother team.