Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Ladykillers

Sitting through the 2004 remake of the Ealing classic THE LADYKILLERS is like watching a comedian slowly die on stage. A balls out desperate gasp to please, show off, to do damn near anything for a laugh. But even getting a muted guffaw or slight nod of approval from your audience may be tough business for this film, Msrs. Joel and Ethan Coen.

THE LADYKILLERS would be their second dud in a row, following INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, a film whose attempts to be sly were similarly uncomfortably forced and tired. It was like a bad flu these guys suffered. For years, their mastery of both light and dark comedy seemed innate, effortless. But their talents took leave for a period there, thankfully to return with the near perfect NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN in 2007. BURN AFTER READING came a year later and restored the Coens' spot in the comic universe.

That is not to say that THE LADYKILLERS doesn't sport moments of the Coens' wicked wit and unique style (and is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins). The familiar jaded perspective is still there. The (more gentle this time) nihilism.  Their choice of source material, a sardonic 1955 British comedy that had starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, is certainly appropriate to their sensibilities. Too bad they felt the need to play to the galleries.

Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks) is the suspicious Southern gentleman who darkens the door of Mrs. Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) in search of a room to rent. He oozes charm and learned vocabulary, professing to be a professor. The widow Munson is taken with Dorr and offers no obstacle to allowing he and his band of musicians to practice in her basement.

The others are in reality are Dorr's accomplices in a planned casino heist. Coens regular J.K Simmons (in a rare disappointing turn) plays Garth Pancake, demolitions expert. Marlon Wayans is Gawain McSamthe, the inside guy at the casino. Tzi Ma plays The General, proprietor of the Hi-Ho donut shop and expert tunneler. Ryan Hurst is "lump", a brain dead football player.  While Mrs. Munson thinks they're rehearsing, they in fact are digging through her basement wall straight to the casino vault. Each night, they bag up the dirt and drop it from a bridge down to a shipping barge that passes by like clockwork (this is a vital plot point).  It doesn't take long for the good church going lady to raise an eyebrow.  And for the criminals to realize they may have to dispatch her.

As you watch THE LADYKILLERS, you wonder how mean spirited things will get. The original film was premium black comedy, never over the top. The Coens are known for deftly using brutality and death for laughs (FARGO, etc.), but this film remains fairly non-violently whimsical, even in its darkest moments. It was the right choice, a real balance. So what went so wrong?

The filmmakers litter their remake with so many bad ideas that at times I was skeptical that they actually concocted this thing. Such as? Pancake suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and even meets his ladyfriend, Mountain Girl (Diane Delano) at an IBS mixer! No opportunity to exploit this most embarrassing problem (and oh so easy comedic device) is missed. Gawain's vocabulary favors the beloved "F" word so many times it becomes numbing (and again, desperate). It's like he wandered in from another movie. I'm no prude, but the profanity wasn't funny or shocking, just annoying after awhile. Most of the gags fizzle, aside from the occasional gem, like when Gawain tries to bump off the kindly lady but is halted by a childhood flashback.  The funniest thing to me was Mrs. Munson's repeated desire to donate to Bob Jones University, the one so notoriously segregationist in its attitudes.

There are also repeated cutaways to a gospel choir (music produced by T. Bone Burnett), which perhaps narrate/provide commentary to the film's plot. The music is great, but the idea quickly runs out of gas. Maybe you should just hit those chapter stops.

Mostly, the actors mug and flail in ways that may have just passed muster in a lesser Jerry Lewis vehicle.  Hanks is initially very irritating and unconvincing as the would-be genteel silver tongue, but as the film progresses he gets better. But everyone else (save Ms. Hall) is pretty embarrassing. I did like the black cat...
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