To say that I am a Coen brothers fan is not nearly enough. I've seen all the movies, own all the DVDs and have collected most of the original posters and trailers. I've read Ethan Coen's book and I threw a Big Lebowski-themed party for New Years Eve.* In other words, I think the Coens are some of the most talented filmmakers working today.
What I like most about their films is the dazzling originality. Whether it's a shot from the inside of a bowling ball, or a man meeting making his unfortunate end in a wood chipper, I look forward to a truly unique experience in each film. But what happens when their latest film is a remake?
The original Ladykillers was set in England and starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. Joel and Ethan have relocated the story to modern day Mississippi and assigned Guinness' role as the group's leader to Tom Hanks. The plot remains essentially the same: a gang of robbers pose as musicians and rent a room from an elderly landlady. They think they can carry out a heist right under her nose, but when she discovers their plan, the robbers try to kill her off. In the new version, The Professor (Hanks) rents a room from a widow who's basement is in close proximity to the underground counting house of a riverboat gambling establishment. The Professor brings in a tunneling crew and convinces the old lady that they are all a group of musicians who specialize in renaissance music. While Bach blasts on a CD player, the men go to work.
Hanks' character, Professor Dorr, is truly remarkable. The dialogue is well-crafted and Tom Hanks wields it well. Unfortunately, it seems as though the Coens spent all their time and energy perfecting The Professor and hurriedly filled in the rest of the gang at the last minute. The Marlon Wayans character Gawain is completely out of place in the film. When he comes on screen it's as though someone has changed the channel from IFC to BET. The problem isn't with Wayan's performance, it's a clear misstep in the writing. The rest of the group is somewhere in the mediocre middle and imminently forgettable. Lump, "the muscle," is little more than a Varsity Blues send up, and The General's only memorable characteristic is that he can hide a lit cigarette in his mouth.
The plot moves along well enough and there is never a moment where the movie is boring, but The Ladykillers left the fan in me a little unsatisfied. I didn't come away with any great lines to quote ala Barton Fink or Big Lebowski, nor was I blown away by a really great shot (ala Fargo or The Man Who Wasn't There). Some say the film is worth seeing for the gospel performances, but, unfortunately I have to say The Fighting Temptations has a lot more to offer musically.
Those that aren't Coen devotees like myself will probably enjoy this movie more than I did. All the characters are very likeable and the premise of the film is a lot of fun. Hanks' performance alone is worth a matinee admission price and Ladykillers is probably the funniest movie out there right now. In the end, I'm sure I'll buy the DVD and find a way to work in "We must all have waffles forthwith!" into conversation, but you can bet I'm never throwing a Ladykillers party.
On that note. . .
*HOW TO THROW A BIG LEBOWSKI PARTY:
Begin with an unsoiled rug, preferably one that ties the room together. Go to the grocery store in your bathrobe and purchase some half n' half and whatever else you may need to make White Russians (be sure and pay with a check). Hide some homework in your couch then invite your friends over and ask them to bring along some Creedence. Encourage them to wear their bathrobes and if you have a special lady friend, suggest she paint her toenails green. If anyone asks to listen to The Eagles, kick them out immediately. When everyone gets hungry, go to In and Out Burger or your local equivalent. If you get bored, go bowling.
-Megan A. Denny