Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 01, 2004 3:56 pm 
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Death warmed over

[Review published on CineScene]

The Ladykillers is a rehash of the 1955 Ealing comedy of the same name which starred Alec Guinness. The Coen brothers, who’ve always been post-modern and tongue-in-cheek, increasingly work in pastiches. Recently we’ve had a chilly and uninvolving period noir (The Man Who Wasn’t There) and a spiritedly vicious romantic comedy which loses its rhythm half way through (Intolerable Cruelty). The Ladykillers is a less appealing and less enjoyable effort along this derivative line. The Coens’ genre-surfing has always dramatized their adeptness but also shown a tendency to shift rather randomly from one thing to another, without seeming to care, so long as the next thing is different from the last.

The Ealing comedies aren’t really what you’d call a “genre.” They’re more a droll outgrowth of Fifties English cinema production methods and a record of the brilliance and versatility of Alec Guinness. One can only rejoice that the Coens didn’t choose one of the real triumphs of the Ealing studios to spoil, something sublime and unforgettable like Kind Hearts and Coronets (the jewel in the crown); that backhanded indictment of capitalism,The Man in the White Suit; or the haunting bigamist’s tale, The Captain’s Paradise. The Ladykillers wasn’t the greatest. But still it had Guinness. And it had the wholeness of something produced by a studio that was a well-oiled machine.

The plot in outline remains the same in this new version. A fake professor takes lodgings from an old lady, his pals pretend to be musicians, but what they’re really getting together to do is to plot a robbery. The Coens switch the action to somewhere in the American South, both time and place fatally vague. Indeed Tom Hanks, as Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, is from one milieu and era, and each of his cohorts is from various incompatible others. They seem to be standing up to recite their parts solo, loudly, like those ugly Americans who shout at Europeans in the belief that it will make their English more comprehensible. This begins with Irma P. Hall as Marva Munson, the landlady, a large, rickety black woman of antique vintage who recites an emphatic but unconvincing tirade against rap in the little town police station. Each of the robbers has a schtick. Gawain MacSam (Marlan Wayans) is a foulmouthed and uncooperative young black man. Garth Pancake (J.K.Simmons) is a sterling white fellow with an implausible Freedom Rider background and a large moustache. Lump (Ryan Hurst) is a dumb jock gorilla who looks wide-eyed and grunts. The General (Tsi Ma) is a slimy southeast Asian with a background, like Pancake’s, in government sponsored pyromania, and his trick is to swallow lighted cigarettes. The job of Pancake and the General is to blast their way through the ground, with Lump’s digging help, to a gambling casino’s safe. MacSam is the “inside man,” a janitor employed on the river boat where the safe is stored.

Plenty of lively hostility develops within this crew of would be robbers, but there’s never enough teamwork or chemistry among them to begin with to make their buffoonery run smoothly.

The Coens have always had a cold, cruel streak. They began by torturing the audience deliciously in Blood Simple and they abused their main character with thrilling disdain in Barton Fink, so it was part of the pleasure from the start. But when the cruelty turns to stereotypes and racism, it’s not funny.

Some may think Tom Hanks gives a remarkable performance as the ersatz professor. His mannered laugh and elaborate delivery are certainly a departure from his usual folksy authenticity; but it’s a performance that is dead in the water, partly because the rest of the movie doesn’t give him any support. His fake southern speech is so mannered it’s hard to follow. Its rhythms are all wrong. It’s as if the lines are memorized and reeled off without any sense of context or motivation. Hanks manages to be both remote and icky. Guinness was ingratiating and scary, a combination that works much differently. This version has no edge, not even a genteel one. Oddly, the old lady doesn’t really turn out to be dangerous, a development that was the linchpin of the original plot.

The speech by the elderly black actress, Ms. Hall, which opens the jailhouse scene, has the same sort of effect as all the other tirades. It’s a tour de force that seems curiously detached from both the actress and her role. Nobody in this movie finds a rhythm that creates rapport with other characters. Each stereotype – fake genteel professor, liberal white guy, trash-talking black man, dumb jock, sinister Asian – is autonymous. As often happens when a Coen screenplay isn’t working, the lines are clever but artificial and the scenes are disjointed.

O Brother Where Art Thou? despite it’s charming soundtrack and good actors, who were fun to watch because they obviously were enjoying themselves, also seemed terribly condescending in its broad parody of hillbillies and rednecks. The Coens lose all tact when outside an urban sphere. But O Brother was brilliant and rich compared to this drab, mean-spirited effort. We really can’t wait for the robbers to bump each other off, but there’s nothing neat about the way it happens.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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