A remake of the 1955 comedy, the story revolves around a Southern professor who puts together a group of thieves to rob a casino. They rent a room in an old woman's house, but soon she discovers the plot and they must kill her, a task that is more difficult than it seems. Written by
My recollection of the original THE LADYKILLERS is somewhat shaky, but I remember it to be a whimsical little comedy, one of those delightfully British films that celebrate English eccentricity, even in its dark and slightly murderous extremes. Made in 1955 and featuring such wonderful talents as Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, it has earned a reputation as a minor classic.
One can only assume that the Coen Brothers never saw the original, or if they did they decided that to Americanize the tale they had to strip it of anything that might even vaguely seem whimsical -- or funny. As if to reinforce the continental notion that Americans are vulgar, their woefully inept remake wallows in tastelessness. The film does display the Coens' penchant for striking visuals and offers up moments here and there of genteel ghoulishness, but it's all superficial style. Beneath that facade the film is cruel and ugly and hateful and really quite racist. For no particular reason, this tired tale about thieves tunneling into a vault has been transported to the Mississippi Delta and populated with a cast of characters trapped in racial stereotyping of every sort.
Doing a crude parody of a southern gentleman, Tom Hanks plays unpleasantly against type as Prof. Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D., a con man who finagles his way into a boarding house ran by Irma P. Hall as Mrs. Marva Munson. He hopes to commandeer her basement as the starting point for a tunnel into the counting house of a nearby casino. (Never mind that his "inside man" already has inexplicably easy access to the poorly guarded vault making the need for the tunnel questionable.) Anyway, the plot is tired and predictable, but workable if approached with a sense of clever good cheer (as proved by Woody Allen's SMALL TIME CROOKS). But that is not to be in this case: the Coens -- Ethan and Joel co-directing and co-writing -- try ham-handedly to blend macabre wit with the obscenity-laden ethnic humor of black exploitation films. As such, the film is constantly shifting back and forth in tone.
The stereotyping of Mrs. Munson as a no-nonsense Bible-thumping dowager is broad, and, at times, rather than being naive and slightly dotty, she seems just plain stupid. (She thinks Ph.D. is the spelling of Elmer Fudd's last name; that's how desperate the humor gets.) But Mrs. Munson is relatively inoffensive compared to the grotesque caricatures the film makes of the other characters. Especially offensive is Marlon Wayons' foul-mouthed Gawain, an utterly moronic homeboy, who seems to have drunkenly stumbled in from the set of SCARY MOVIE; his only function in the film is to insert multiple, achingly unfunny obscenities into every single sentence he utters. I suppose he is also meant to represent a contrast to the church-going, gospel-singing members of Mrs. Munson's congregation, but the juxtaposition of gospel and hip-hop, the sacred and the profane, serves no purpose other than to present two equally clichéd vision of African Americans. The Coens patronizes southern blacks, while also pandering to the lowest level rap music mentality.
What should have been a family friendly comedy develops into an R-rated insult. Wayons' unrelentingly filthy language is matched with jokes about bowel movements and a painfully unfunny gag about a dog suffocating. The only character worthy of sympathy is Ryan Hurst as the hatefully named Lump Hudson, a brain-damaged football players who is utterly irrelevant to the story except to be condescendingly laughed at for being dumb. And doesn't it say something that the Coens, once celebrated for their adult wit and sophisticated approach, have fallen to the pathetic level of naming a character Lump, just to get an easy laugh? By the time the film takes a murderous twist, it is difficult to care about anyone. I assume that Hanks' Prof. Dorr is supposed to be a lovable scalawag, but his posturing demeanor is as annoying as his compulsive snickering laughter; none of Hanks' natural charm seeps through. His band of cohorts are callous and one-dimensional. Even Mrs. Munson begins to grate on one's nerves, as she proves to be a dull-witted bully.
What is missing from the film is a sense of innocence. The Coens have proved they know how to embrace malevolence, but not since BLOOD SIMPLE have they shown the devilish wit of Alfred Hitchcock or Tim Burton or Charles Addams or Edward Gory or even Edgar Allen Poe. In their inexplicable attempt to mix modern film sadism with quaint British irony, they let the former suffocate the latter; and like the poor dog in the film, THE LADYKILLERS dies a slow and painfully unpleasant death.
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