The Ladykillers
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen. Cast: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, Diane Delano, George Wallace. Screenplay: Joel & Ethan Coen (based on the earlier screenplay by William Rose).


We come not to praise The Ladykillers but to bury it. I have never seen the original film, directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Alec Guinness, because I'm not a huge fan of either man's work. Plus, that mid-1950s, Ealing-inspired style of British comedy which the film apparently inhabits isn't really my thing. I'm not sure it's the Coen Brothers' thing, either, given the joyless and inconsistent movie they have mounted in putative homage. The basic premise, wherein a gaggle of unlikely criminals move into a Southern matron's house under false pretenses, dig a tunnel from her basement into the vault of a nearby casino, and discover (whoa!) that their schemes don't really go according to plan is not necessarily doomed from the start. Again, for all I know, the original is a beaut, and even with all the stupid heist comedies, heist dramas, and heist thrillers we've had running around lately, at least Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven, also a remake, proved how creamily seductive the result can be.

There is no question that Soderbergh's Ocean's, a worldwide box-office smash, was the sugarplum vision in the heads of The Ladykillers' producers, and yet the two films couldn't be more different. Where Soderbergh's camera glides through the casinos, designed and photographed so elegantly that Las Vegas almost looks like a class outfit, the Coens stay committed to that rigid-frame mise-en-scène that murders comic possibilities (The Hudscuker Proxy) as often as it nourishes them (Raising Arizona). Where the witty editing and suave plot-reversals in Ocean's made the whole film a study in charismatic sangfroid, The Ladykillers can't help being aloof and ironic about every damn thing, except money, which the Coens seem strangely embarrassed to put on screen. Where Ocean's took delicious pleasure in every stage of the crime, dexterously corraling a team of weirdly compatible oddballs, each introduced in a plucky and distinctive establishing sequence, the crime outfit in The Ladykillers arrives pre-formed. Any alternative is impossible to imagine, because no sequence in any movie could ever convince us that a single one of these shopworn caricatures are capable of a smart con, or even of an engaging failure, much less of working together.

At the center of the cast and the action is Tom Hanks, giving a sticky, tinnily packaged Cadbury egg of a performance as the seersucker dandy who is The Ladykillers' criminal mastermind. Though Hanks' work has apparently tickled a rib here and there, plenty of people have shared my own overwhelming sense that this is a failed performance, shellacked with irritating mannerisms that have no comic payoff whatsoever. We could go further, though, and admit that this regrettable turn is not so much an anomaly in Hanks' career as it is the latest, most offending development in the pattern of an irritating and wildly overpraised career. I knew we were in trouble when, in the first shot of the film, the actor's name comes embossed in Gothic, monastically reverent calligraphy, the letters literally beaming light against the blue backdrop of the heavens. Hanks' biggest asset as a star and as an actor is a mystical ability to appear humble and understated when he is, at all times, florid and overstudied. It's good to see him return to comedies and to join forces with directors who aren't inclined to view him as nobility personified; the last Hanks performance I enjoyed without feeling like I was supposed to be saluting him with one hand was in You've Got Mail. Still, there is an arrogance to how egregiously and wrongly calculated the current performance is. Everyone working on the film must have bet the farm that we'd swallow such absurdity because our beloved Tom was the perp. I, on the other hand, felt just the way I did during those horrendous back-to-back Oscar speeches: less would have been infinitely more, especially given that someone else surely deserved the moment more than Hanks did. Paul Newman and Morgan Freeman would have been much better selections for that 1994 Best Actor Oscar that Hanks snagged for Forrest Gump, and they also would have been incalculably more fun in the Ladykillers role—not to mention much more generous ensemble players to the supporting cast, whose dissonant forms of caricature need a coherent, capacious star performance to draw them together. I do not take it as accidental that the one scene in The Ladykillers that sort of works is Irma P. Hall's bellicose arrival in her local police station, complaining of such-and-so-on in the way only Southern women of a certain age can really master. What I mean is, the one scene of The Ladykillers I enjoyed was the one before Hanks' arrival.

The picture's descent into inanity is so swift as not to be worth recounting. The further slide into snideness and misanthropy, particularly unwarranted here since no one onscreen seems lifelike enough to deserve real contempt, takes the last act of the picture into such a sterile plane that even people who have bravely stomached or even enjoyed the preceding passages are likely to feel put off. What's wrong with these filmmakers? Why are they squandering their talents on such meager product as last year's immediately forgotten comedy Intolerable Cruelty and now on this utterly gratuitous remake? The Coens' approach to filmmaking is so odd that even when they're filming their own material, with total creative control, the result can still feel muffled. Miller's Crossing and, even more so, O Brother, Where Art Thou? are so internally dissonant, lengthening sequences we'd just as soon pass over and skirting over characters we'd like to know better, that it's almost as though the Coens enjoy the challenge of soundproofing their own engaging compositions, testing us to see how patiently we'll keep listening, how long we'll trust whatever voice is telling us that it's worth it to hang in there.

I am starting, as you can tell, to have my doubts. Something like a schtick is emerging, and it's entirely front-loaded. The leads in the Coens' films are getting starrier, which pumps up the opening-weekend box-office before the certain dropoffs occasioned by lazy execution and spoiled expectations. The title sequences, lavish and inspired (the collage of Cupids over "Suspicious Minds" is the only thing I remember clearly about Intolerable Cruelty) seem to flower under the kind of caring hand that the rest of the movie sorely needs and doesn't get. The soundtracks are crammed with nostalgia of one flavor of another: this time, it's the gospel tradition of Southern black churches, even though the rest of the movie is so anodyne and unshaped it could be happening anywhere. Even Roger Deakins' photography, once such a proud hallmark of the Coens' work, has been frankly uninteresting in these last two outings; loyal costume designer Mary Zophres is having a little more fun, but should we really be going to Coen Brothers movies to see what people are wearing? I thought that's what the E! channel was for.

In the best case scenario, the Coens are shilling soundtrack CDs and assembly-lining these boring, anonymous pictures so as to bankroll some shrewd, well-orchestrated, uncompromised personal project that you only get to make after your multi-picture contract with a studio devil has been fulfilled. In that case, the Coens are sort of operating like their Ladykillers characters, adopting an off-key, faux-folksy persona as Touchstone Studios crossovers so they can bag the easy bucks and dupe us all with whatever nifty, self-indulgent whatzit they've got up their sleeve. And if that's what happens, I'm fine with it. This is one filmmaking team on whom self-indulgence tends to look pretty good. The Ladykillers, by contrast, just feels indulgent, without imparting any notion of whom it might be indulging. Everyone in it looks as though they're punching a timecard at the end of the shooting day, and this is the one way in which the film connects with its audience, since by around the midpoint, everyone at my showing seemed equally hopeful that the end was near. D


Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Jury Prize for Acting (Hall)

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