The Ladykillers
directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
(Touchstone, 2003)

A lone raven perches on a bridge gargoyle high above the Mississippi, watching a garbage barge being towed to a nearby island, and before their movie is two minutes old, the Coen brothers (Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?) have provided a pair of images that will come back to haunt and delight their legion of fans.

The images open The Ladykillers, a film that's both a continuation of and stark departure from Joel and Ethan Coens' earlier work.

Like their previous films, Ladykillers is a tale of criminal mischief that leads to violence and death, and like their previous films, it's imbued with such dark humor that it's hard not to laugh at the violence and death. Unlike their earlier efforts, however, Ladykillers is an adaptation, a remake of a mid-'50s caper comedy starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. And, for better or worse, Guinness and Sellers aren't Tom Hanks and Marlon Wayans.

In the 21st-century version, Hanks plays G.H. Dorr, Ph.D., a Poe-spouting professor, or so he says, on sabbatical who rents a room from Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), an up-in-years black widow with definite ideas about what's fittin' (church and tea ladies) and what's not (loud boom boxes and hippity-hop music.) Of particular interest to Dorr is Munson's root cellar, where he plans to gather his band of Renaissance musicians for occasional practice of what he calls "sacred music."

But in truth, something Coen brothers' characters fall back on only as a last resort, Dorr's ensemble -- Gawain MacSam (Wayans), Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), the General (Tzi Ma) and Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst) -- are about as unlikely a Renaissance band as was ever assembled. In fact, as Dorr soon reveals in Poe-like prose, their real interest isn't the Renaissance, but the nearby underground vault in which a local riverboat casino stashes its loot. And it isn't long before Dorr's gang is tunneling forth.

As is to be expected, however, what's funny about what Dorr, Gawain and Garth do is not what they do but how they do it and how the Coens -- who wrote, directed, produced and edited the film -- portray it.

Take the the sheriff's office, where Munson first goes to report Gawain's loud hippity-hop music and later turns up to snitch on Dorr. Set off by itself, across the road, filmed flat-on, it looks like a postcard or a piece of Plasticville until Munson enters it.

That's in stark contrast to the powerful shots of the church Munson attends, towering above the community, a white-on-white Camelot crowning a lush green hill.

Even more fun is the dialogue, most of which can't be transcribed here because it's delivered in fluent Wayanese, and the rapid-fire montage by which the Coens illuminate the backgrounds of the lesser gang members -- especially Garth, whose attempt to resuscitate a dog he's accidentally sent into cardiac arrest is only slightly less gagging than his ill-timed attacks of irritable bowel syndrome, and the General, whose success in foiling a robbery at the doughnut stand he manages tops just about anything you'll see in a martial arts film -- ever.

Then, too, there's the vibrant musical score, almost all of it gospel and much of it composed or assembled by Henry "T-Bone" Burnett, who also worked on the score on O Brother Where Art Thou. In fact, if there's one place where the usually minimalist Coen brothers go overboard, it's in the church scenes, where the Venice Four with Rose Stone and the Abbot Kinney Lighthouse Choir quickly take over and lead the congregation through traditional gospel tunes like "Yes" and "Let the Light from the Lighthouse Shine on Me."

The sum of all this effort is a piece as charming as Hanks' turn as a literary type and as blunt as Wayans' vocabulary.

It's not as quotable as The Big Lebowski, as dark as Barton Fink or as unnerving as Fargo. It's more along the lines of The Man Who Wasn't There -- a niche film, highly derivative yet highly original, with superb visuals, great music and fascinating characters who develop along with the film. (Hall won a Jury Prize at Cannes for her portrayal of Munson).

Most importantly, it's proof that after 20 years, the Coens can still make us laugh -- and wait impatiently to see what they come up with next.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 29 January 2005

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