About Features Reviews Community Screenings Archives Home
March 2004

By Julian Roman
The Lady Killers
Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Produced by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Tom Jacobson, Barry Josephson, Barry Sonnenfeld
Screenplay: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, based on “The Ladykillers” by William Rose
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Music Composer: Carter Burwell
Cast: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, George Wallace, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, Diane Delano, and Amad Jackson

Ethan and Joel Coen have made a career of directing and writing interesting, quirky films with memorable characters. Their latest effort, The Ladykillers, is lacking considerably in all of these categories. It's mediocre at best and one of their worst films when it comes to pacing. The movie is extremely slow and it's not because of character development or plot. The Coen's take up an inordinate amount of screen time with gospel musical numbers. The film could qualify as a musical. Normally this works in their films, especially in the southern-based comedy genre, but not this time. It drags out a story that could have easily been resolved in less time.

Tom Hanks stars as Professor Goldthwaite H. Dorr. He rents a room in the house of Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall). Marva's an old lady that has been living by herself for twenty years, since her husband died. She spends her time at church and bothering the local sheriff, Wyner (George Wallace), with trivial problems. Her favorites are complaining about the loud "hippity-hop music" and rescuing her escaped cat. Professor Dorr, known as GH, has a plan to rob a floating casino on the Mississippi River. He wants to tunnel underground, from Marva's basement, into the cash room on the riverbank. His cover story for Marva is that he and his partners, Gawain (Marlon Wayans), The General (Tzi Ma), Garth (J.K. Simmons), and Lump (Ryan Hurst) are Rococo musicians that need to practice in her basement. The plan goes awry when Marva discovers what they're up to. Their only recourse is to figure out how they're going to knock her off.

The Ladykillers has its whimsical moments and is funny at times. Tom Hanks portrays GH Dorr with the zeal of an actor uncaged. The character can be described as an eloquent Colonel Sanders with a silly, stuttering giggle. He spouts Edgar Allen Poe, reads renaissance literature, and is by far the funniest character in the film. This is the main problem with The Ladykillers. GH Dorr is worth watching and everybody else is not. It's an ensemble cast with unfunny, stereotypical characters, especially Marlon Wayans as Gawain. Irma P. Hall is okay as Marva Munson, but she's not given that much to do. Other characters, like The General and Lump, have nothing to say. Their silence is a part of their characters, but they could have been used more. Compare The Ladykillers with O Brother Where Art Thou, a similar Coen Brothers film. Both films are quirky musical comedies set in the deep South. O Brother succeeds because every character, not just George Clooney's, is unique and important to the story. That film had a depth that The Ladykillers does not. It would have worked better if the other actors had stronger characters. Maybe this is one of those cases where the A-list star, Tom Hanks, is given all the meat and potatoes in the script. The Coen Brothers don't fall into any Hollywood categories and are pretty much free to do what they want. Let's hope they didn't fall prey to letting the star run the show.

The film should have been trimmed by fifteen minutes. There were quite a few unnecessary scenes. The music plays an important part in the film. That's understandable, it adds to the tone and setting. It's just too much here. The scenes in the church go on for too long. It almost as if the Coen Brothers are giving us a primer on Gospel music. That's fine, but not in this context. The film is about a bunch of oddballs trying to rob a bank and kill an old lady. The Coen's needed to concentrate more on the evolution of the plot. It's like the plot comes secondary to the music. That might be the case, but it doesn't work that well here.

The Ladykillers is also laced with profanity. That's the most surprising aspect of the film. Marlon Wayan's says the f-word after everything he says. You just expect better dialogue from a Coen Brother's script. Tom Hanks has many clever lines while Marlon Wayans is calling everyone a "motherf***er" and "my niggah". I realize that the characters are exaggerated stereotypes, but it gets old quickly.

The Ladykillers is a remake of a classic 1950's film of the same title. The two films probably have very little in common apart from the plot. It'd be shocking to find the 50's version filled with Gospel music and the f-word. The 2004 version is not unentertaining, but subpar for a film from the Coen Brothers. That might be an unfair criticism, but success breeds expectations. No need to run out to the theater.