Marva Munson (Irma Hall) is a lonely old woman, still mourning the loss of her one and only son, and keeping the local law enforcement busy with daily reminders of the neighborhood’s improprieties. When the Southern-fried Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks) comes calling to rent a room for himself and a practice space for his “church band,” Marva agrees. The “church band” turns out to be a thick-headed football jock (Ryan Hurst), a failed movie prop master (J.K. Simmons), a Vietnam War survivor who runs a local grocery (Tzi Ma), and a young disenchanted urban man (Marlon Wayans, the weak link in the cast). Instead of practicing, the group’s goal is to tunnel through Marva’s root cellar wall, and dig their way into the safe of a nearby riverboat casino office. Though filled with mishaps, the team finally gets close to their goal of stolen wealth, but when Marva catches on to the plan, getting rid of her will prove to be the largest complication facing the criminals.
“The Ladykillers” (IMDb listing) is a pitch-black comedy (originally filmed in 1955 with Alec Guinness) that is tailor made for the grubby hands of writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen. Smarting from their last film, the misfire “Intolerable Cruelty,” which graced theaters a mere 5 months ago, the Coens find more opportunities to indulge their sinister impulses, as well as their peculiar sense of humor in "Ladykillers." Where else could you find references to Edgar Allan Poe and Tribe Called Quest in one movie? These guys very rarely disappoint.
Set in some type of alternate universe where old time, fuddy-duddy southern gents can co-exist with Vietnam vets and booty-lovin’ urban thugs who pepper their every sentence with two or three uses of a choice 12-letter curse word, “Ladykillers” definitely takes pleasure in its idiosyncrasies. In an excellent move, the Coens do not try to expand on the oddities presented throughout the film, but focus in on the crazy situation at hand. This permits time for the bizarre jabs at comedy to cultivate, ranging from slapstick (a great bit involving a thumb lost to a plastic explosive mishap) to obscure literary and cultural references. It runs the gamut, that‘s for sure. Since “Ladykillers” is so off kilter and excessively Coenish, it doesn’t liquefy when the tale eventually takes a dark turn towards potential murder. There’s a nice equilibrium found by the Coens between these shifting tones that keeps “Ladykillers” from ever really dragging. And there’s more than enough style and gorgeous production work to engage the eye when the dialog has a tendency to overreach for attention.
The cast of “Ladykillers” is a textbook case of a wonderful ensemble, but who is anybody kidding? The draw here is Tom Hanks, and his performance is one to watch in puzzlement. He is fitted with crooked, yellowed teeth, a white turn-of-the-century cape, and speaks with such persuasiveness and rhetoric that it makes one wonder how he learned all those massive lines; Hanks is the charmingly deceitful rotting core to all the dank root cellar madness. Masterfully attempting to both underplay and overplay at the same time, with an uproarious snorting giggle when the excitement gets to be too much, Hanks is the reason for the picture’s worth, striking a symbolic pose for all the insanity that the film contains. Playing beautifully off Irma Hall’s stubborn Marva, Hanks and the Coens make for a perfect pair, with the Brothers bringing out unseen facets to Hanks’ talents just like they did in their fantastic work with George Clooney (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”).
“The Ladykillers” is classic Coen Brother material that returns the duo to more accustomed surroundings. It might get a little indiscernible at times, but the laughs and guffaws are there, and there’s nobody like the Coens working today who can balance such a peculiar picture so impeccably.
Filmfodder Grade: B