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Dustin Putman

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The Ladykillers (2004)
3 Stars

Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, Diane Delano, George Wallace, John McConnell, Jason Weaver, Stephen Root, Baadja-Lyne Odums, Walter Jordan
2004 – 104 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language including sexual references).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 27, 2004.

It took them eight years, but writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen have finally made a film that makes good on the promise set by their watermark achievement, 1996's Oscar-winning "Fargo." Since then, the Coen brothers have released one disappointing motion picture after the next, with 2003's intolerable "Intolerable Cruelty" setting a new low for them. Their slump finally comes to an end with "The Ladykillers," an uproariously funny, pitch-black remake of the 1955 Alec Guiness feature. It is, in essence, everything a movie by the Coen's should be: sharply plotted, thoroughly unpredictable, faultlessly acted, gorgeously photographed, endlessly entertaining, and packed with grin-inducing irony.

When elderly, churchgoing widower Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) is met at her door one day by Professor G.H. Dorr, PhD (Tom Hanks), she is instantly won over by his offbeat southern charms and welcomes him as her new tenant. Posing as the leader of a spiritual band, G.H. convinces Marva to allow he and the rest of his band members—trash-talking casino janitor Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), explosives expert Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), the cold-blooded General (Tzi Ma), and muscled lunkhead Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst)—to practice their music in her fruit cellar. What Marva doesn't know is that they aren't musicians at all, but a criminal team set on digging their way underground to a nearby riverboat casino to rob them blind. When Marva discovers their secret and cannot be persuaded to keep quiet, G.H. and gang have no choice but to do away with the old lady. Killing her, however, proves to be more of a challenge than any of them bargained for.

While lighter in tone, "The Ladykillers" is quite reminiscent of "Fargo" in its story of an expertly planned crime gone fatally awry. And if anyone knows just how to write and conceive such a plot, it is filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. "The Ladykillers" is a heist film, something of a cross between 2001's "Ocean's Eleven" and 2000's delightful Woody Allen caper "Small Time Crooks," that refreshingly avoids most modern conventions of the genre to bring audiences a fresher, funnier, more ingenious take on the shopworn subject.

And funny it is. There are a number of enormous, laugh-out-loud moments throughout, enough to mark it as one of the better comedies in recent memory, with perhaps its brightest concerning the length G.H. goes to in hiding from a visiting police officer. A trip to a waffle house and the unforeseen appearance of Garth's hillbilly girlfriend, only known as Mountain Girl (Diane Delano), would probably come a close second to its entire irony-filled climax, where the criminals' plans quickly go down the drain. The writing is top-notch from start to finish, veering past predictable, cheap humor and finding more creative and witty outlets to make its appearances. Even a picture of Marva's dearly departed husband, whose facial expression changes depending on what is happening in each given scene, is explosively winning.

Likewise, the cast—and their characters—are a treasure trove of diverse personalities and talents. Long absent from the world of comedy, Tom Hanks (2002's "Road to Perdition") returns with a vengeance to the genre that made him famous in the '70s sitcom, "Bosom Buddies," creating a quirky, effervescent delight out of Professor G.H. Dorr, PhD. In his maniacally over-the-top laugh, his smooth operator mannerisms, and his sniveling deep-south speech patterns, Hanks brilliantly makes G.H. a one-of-a-kind walking contradiction.

Irma P. Hall (2002's "Bad Company") is every bit Hanks' match as the outspoken, God-fearing Marva Munson, a veritable force to be reckoned with. Hall is a standout every time she appears, which is quite often, and proves to be a pro comedian also able to create a well-rounded, hard-to-dislike character. It's an Oscar-worthy performance that shouldn't be forgotten by the end of the year. The impressive supporting work by Marlon Wayans (2000's "Scary Movie"), Ryan Hurst (2000's "Remember the Titans"), J.K. Simmons (2002's "Spider-Man"), Tzi Ma (2002's "The Quiet American"), and Diane Delano (2003's "Jeepers Creepers 2") holds their own in every way.

Resplendently photographed by Roger Deakins (2003's "House of Sand and Fog"), excelling in moody film noir mixed with the sun-dappled Mississippi setting, "The Ladykillers" is a major cinematic surprise that once again places Joel and Ethan Coen near the top of the rank of current filmmakers. Kudos, also, to a resourceful opening credits sequence deceptive in its hints at the story's outcome without letting the viewer know its purpose until they have arrived at film's end. With the exception of a few gospel choir sequences that fail to serve much purpose and go on too long, "The Ladykillers" makes few missteps on its path to comic heaven. It is an intelligent Hollywood film with an exceedingly clever independent mindframe that refuses to alienate any potential viewer. It is difficult to imagine anyone going to see "The Ladykillers" and not have a great time in the process.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman