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THE LADYKILLERS

2004, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
104 min. Rated R.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons.

Review by Noel Wood

Lord knows I'm a huge fan of the Coen Brothers. Yeah, I know that it's all-too hipster to love everything that they do, but I still do. I first fell in love with them way back in my youth as I first sat through RAISING ARIZONA, and have since made it my mission to see every film that they release. The Coens have an unmistakable style that courses through their body of work, and even to the average moviegoer their style speaks for itself. Most interestingly, though, is the phenomenon that comes from watching their films repeatedly: they seem to get better ther more you see them.

Such is the case for THE BIG LEBOWSKI, from which the term "The Lebowski Effect" has been coined for this phenomenon; but it also holds true for a lot of their other films, most notably RAISING ARIZONA, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, and BARTON FINK. I actually re-watched another of their brilliant films, MILLER'S CROSSING, last weekend; and couldn't take my eyes off of the screen. It just keeps getting better. Some have said this trait will hold true as INTOLERABLE CRUELTY ages, and hopefully it will do the same to THE LADYKILLERS.

Now, don't get me wrong: I loved THE LADYKILLERS. I thought it was quirky, fun, and damn entertaining. Unfortunately, a lot of critics are giving it a hard time. Now granted, it's not the finest work the Coens have put forth, but it's also a way different movie than anything we've seen from them in the past. It seems to me that a lot of people were noticing similarities in a few thematic elements with O BROTHER and were basically expecting O BROTHER PART TWO. It's just that that is not what this is supposed to be.

THE LADYKILLERS is the Coens' first foray into slapstick comedy, and they pull it off in a style that feels like it's pulled from a much earlier era. Of course, it's also a remake of a 1955 comedy starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, so the story is quite justified in feeling like it's been sprung from a time capsule. The Coens have put together an ensemble of vastly different over-the-top charicatures to complete their little foray, and it's such a bold step that most filmmakers would fall flat. Fortunately, the Coens seem to make it work.

THE LADYKILLERS stars Tom Hanks as Professor G.H. Dorr, an uppity Southern gent who looks like Colonel Sanders and talks like Foghorn Leghorn. The Professor rents a room from a little old widow named Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) in rural Mississippi, so that he can "practice his music." His "band" consists of a hodgepodge of criminals, each a blatant stereotype. There's Gawain (Marlon Wayans), the thuggish hip-hop kid who serves as the inside man on their con. There's Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), a high-maintenance explosives expert who looks like he just stepped off of a safari. There's the General (Tzi Ma), a Viet Cong tunneler who does not let words get in his way. And finally, there's Lump (Ryan Hurst), a dim-witted football player hired as the muscle of the operation. These criminals have staked out a riverboat casino that they will rob by tunneling from the unexpected widow's root cellar into the casino's underground vault.

The plot is incredibly silly, and the events leading up to the film's climax are ridiculously improbable. That's the charm of this movie, though. Not for one moment does it attempt to put on a serious vibe or even tug at a heartstring. It's pure old-fashioned entertainment that creates a fantasy world where the unfeasible becomes the expected. The characters all seem so out of place with one another, and at times they have a little trouble jelling successfully, but for the most part it works.

The performances are a lot of fun as well. Hanks is completely over-the-top as the Professor, but he looks incredibly comfortable in this return to comedy. Wayans isn't doing anything you haven't seen him do before, but perhaps that's why he works so well here. Simmons is the standout of the criminal players, creating a delightfully reprehensible character in Garth. Of course, Irma Hall, as the widow Marva, is really the icing on the cake here. Sure, she's a charicature like the rest of them, but her naivete and passion is so sincere that you can't help but smile every time she opens her mouth. Her comic presence is also dead on, as she rants about "hippity-hop music" and gives props to Montel. Hearing her riff on the line "I left my Wallet in El Segundo" is priceless.

The opening of the film is a bit of a clusterfuck, but the pieces of the puzzle quickly put together as we introduce the five criminals. There's also a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo from The Chin himself, longtime Coen Brothers pal Bruce Campbell, as an ASPCA rep. There's a ton of imagery that is unmistakeable Coen stuff. The most memorable is the repeated shot of a garbage scow being pulled by a tugboat, serving as a key element in the criminals' plot. The events leading to the film's finale seemed a bit rushed, but definitely exemplify the film's slapstick nature.

Gospel music comprises the majority of the film's soundtrack, and while similar in places to the traditional pieces used in O BROTHER, doesn't work with the final product quite as well as it did there. However, it creates a very odd duality with the other half of the soundtrack, which is comprised of hip-hop music. It's an interesting experiment that doesn't quite work as well in practice as it probably did on paper.

Ethan Coen got his first credit as a co-director on THE LADYKILLERS, although he probably had as much of a hand in directing the film as he has on all of the previous films where he's uncredited. Perhaps he'll be taken as the patsy from all of the critics that disliked the film.

Of course, those critics hated O BROTHER. And THE BIG LEBOWSKI. And a lot of them even hated FARGO when it came out. If there's anything that the critical mass has proven, it's that they just don't seem to get the Coens, who have proven to be one of the most consistent quality machines in film. And while THE LADYKILLERS is certainly not the finest work they've ever produced, it's not the klunker some of these critics would have you believe it is. That's why I'm hoping (and, rather, assuming) that the Lebowski Effect holds true for this film as well, because it deserves a second chance from the ones who blasted it the first time.

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