Friday, March 26, 2004

THE LADYKILLERS: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening today in the Triangle:

(Dirs. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, 2004) 

The Coen Brothers’ remake of Alexander Mackendrick’s beloved 1955 Ealing Studios comedy sorely lacks the wit of their previous comedic work (even their previous 
under par movie, 2003s INTOLERABLE CRUELTY was funnier), but at least it doesn’t omit the ironic conclusion of the original like the 2001 OCEAN’S 11 remake did. So at least there’s that. 

The Coens take many liberties with the plot-points and characters of the British original, which starred Alec Guiness and Peter Sellers (in his first full length feature role), but very few of their alterations work in the film’s favor.

Decked out in Colonel Sanders-ish attire, Tom Hanks plays Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, who shares with past Coen characters H.I. McDonnough (Nicholas Cage in RAISING ARIZONA) and Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU) a distinctive trait: his diction and command of the English language far exceeds any other skill or ambition.

The pretentious Professor’s plan here is to rent a room in an unassuming elderly Marva Munson's (Irma P. Hall) house in the small sleepy town of Saucier, Mississippi, and with an assembled gang of cronies including Marlon Wayans and J.K. Simmons (from the HBO series Oz) tunnel through the basement to pull off a heist of the Riverside Casino's vault.

They con their landlord by masquerading as musicians who need a place to practice by playing classical music on a portable stereo to simulate their performance and cover the sound of tunneling. This is one of many comic conventions on display that has been done to death.

Hall’s Marva Munson is a Bob Jones University praising church going figure of reason who regularly converses with a painting of her late husband. Her deceased spouse’s expression changes in reaction to the twists in the farce, an effect not in the original but in far too many comedies since. With contrived lines like “Two thousand years after Jesus, thirty years after Martin Luther King, the age of Montel; sweet Lord of mercy is that where we at?” Marva is far from one of the Coens’ best concoctions.

Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans) gets a few laughs as the inside connection at the Casino speaking what Munson condemns as “hippity hop” talk. Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) also amuses as a explosives expert who loses a finger at one point, bickers with everyone, and constantly says “it's the easiest thing in the world” about everything. Unfortunately Simmons’ irritable bowel syndrome suffering makes for some of the un-funniest material in the Coens’ entire canon.

The General played by Tzi Ma seems to exist in the story to fill a smoking gag - when Munson enters the room he hides his cigarette in his mouth perfectly restoring it with his tongue when she leaves. Again a slight variation on a gag in too many comedies, much like a lot of the throwaway attempts to draw humor here.

Hanks does a good job with Prof. Dorr's ticks - his nervous laughter, his pristine babble, and the faces he makes when frantically scheming, but he never made me forget Alec Guiness’ Professor Marcus in the 1955 version. A little of Hanks’ shtick goes a long way too.

The original was a classic comedy that wickedly mixed black humor with silliness, which are two things the Coen brothers usually excel at. But here they fall way short of what they are capable of by being too loose and broad. They’ve been cartoonish before (see RAISING ARIZONA), but this time the strained situations that surround their clunky cast of caricatures fail to generate any big laughs. Unnecessary on nearly every front - as a remake, a farcical retread, as an ensemble piece, THE LADYKILLERS just goes through the motions and never quite hits any stride.

More later...