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Now, wait a second. Hold on there, Mr. Coen Brothers fan. It's true that, despite having conjured a long string of deliciously curious and marvelously bizarre cinematic concoctions that approach pitch-perfect flawlessness, Joel and Ethan Coen aren't perfect. I need only point you to the big-budget Hollywood blah-ness of their 2003's Intolerable Cruelty, and you'll see where I'm coming from. The blight of that film on the Coen résumé seemed to suggest that the typically trustworthy brothers might be beginning a quick descent into—gasp!—mediocrity.
But don't be so eager to lament the passing of a great filmmaking team: The brothers' latest effort, The Ladykillers—a madcap update of Alexander Mackendrick's 1955 British film starring Alec Guinness—got an unfair rap by critics understandably shaken by Cruelty's ill-fitting high sheen. Cruelty is an utterly average, forgettable comedy, an alarming step away from what makes the Coens uniquely brilliant. There's just not much going on beneath its gloss. In fact, it's the one Coen Brothers film that won't find a home in my DVD library, and I'm usually the first in line to buy their films. But The Ladykillers, if not a rousing success, strikes me as mostly a return to form. It has a tight structure and goofy symbolic groundwork, a scintillating score, and that modestly wacky Coen style. Even if you've already seen The Ladykillers and were left flat, I urge you to give it another try. True, it falters in places, but this is a film that I will enjoy repeatedly and make new discoveries in its darker places.
Both Cruelty and Ladykillers seem to be stabs at a more mainstream audience for the brothers, as their underrated Hudsucker Proxy was 10 years ago. All three films go for star power, yearning for a bit more bix-office magic than the brothers are accustomed to. The vital difference between Cruelty and Ladykillers, however, is that the former lacks any of the directing team's signature quirks. The idiosyncrasies are buried beneath the gloss of Clooney and Zeta-Jones. In Ladykillers, we have the more forgiving star power of Tom Hanks, who has invested himself into the role of Professor G. H. Dorr with such Colonel Sanders vigor as to be almost unrecognizable. He's also supremely funny. Ladykillers isn't a Tom Hanks film—it's a Coen Brothers film.
The Ladykillers takes place in the southern community of Saucier, Mississippi—a change from the original's London setting—where Dorr sets his beady gaze on thieving a local riverboat casino. His scheme is, shall we say, labyrinthine. Dorr has surrounded himself with a decidedly oddball gang of misfits, including Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), the profanity-spewing riverboat janitor who acts as the group's inside man, Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), the jack-of-all-trades explosives man who suffers from a similarly explosive case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (the one bit in the film I could have done utterly without), as well as the General (Tzi Ma), an Asian tough guy, and Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst), a dumb-guy linebacker. Prone to quoting Edgar Alan Poe and flashing his yellow-toothed, unctuous smile, Dorr gets into the good graces of an elderly black woman named Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) and rents a room and the use of her basement. He assures the strong-willed Marva that the basement will be the perfect venue for practicing devotional music with his musician friends, but of course, his plans are more sinister—they involve tunneling.
As a heist movie, The Ladykillers is a definite oddity. The film spends an impressive amount of time devoting its energies to quirky character detail, and building up to the robbery, and yet this isn't a movie that's terribly interested in the mechanics of thievery. I wouldn't call it a suspenseful heist flick. It's more interested in simply watching an ensemble of fatally conflicting personalities crash against one another and seeing what happens. Indeed, the most entertaining and darkly humorous portion of The Ladykillers is its third act, in which we witness the aftermath of the robbery attempt. One of the great sources of humor in the film is that these vastly divergent characters, having come from polar-opposite worlds, don't seem to know how to effectively communicate within the group dynamic—their efforts consistently meet with angered frustration. Dorr's silver-tongued poetry clashes spectacularly with MacSam's foul mouth and is useless in the face of the boneheaded Lump. These communication failures build to a hilariously intricate and Coen-style crescendo in that final act.
Like the best Coen comedies, Ladykillers has a rich visual poetry and a quirky kind of gravity, despite the shenanigans of the proceedings. It also might be the loudest and most shrill of the brothers' efforts, and for that it suffers. As I mentioned, I could have done without the running IBS gag, which seems a blatant grab for the lowest common denominator—something I'd never have expected from two of my favorite filmmakers. But there's a lot in this film's favor, if you take the time to savor it. T-Bone Burnett's gospel-choir score recalls the Coens' O Brother Where Art Thou, similarly anchoring the film with a solid musical underpinning. Tom Hanks is magnificent as the sly Dorr, shedding his Oscar gleam and really getting into the nitty-gritty of the role. Irma Hall nearly steals the movie from under him with her naturalistic rendering of the increasingly furious Marva.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Buena Vista presents The Ladykillers in a fine anamorphic-widescreen presentation of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Detail is pristine, reaching into backgrounds and creating a nice sense of depth. The Coens' extreme attention to detail is very well preserved in this effort—particularly their warm, earthy, golden color palette, which firmly places the film in a nostalgic period, not in time but in mind. The color palette is completely accurate with what I observed in theaters, and black levels are fine. I noticed no instances of digital artifacting, and edge halos are extremely subtle.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is up to the dynamic standards of today's DVD audio presentations. Dialog is clear and natural, with no distortion at the top end. Panning effects and stereo separation are fluid and involving. The gospel score, in particular, fare very well. In fact, I found the choral arrangements to be more robust on DVD than in the theater (if memory serves). There are also some imaginative uses of the surround field.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Unfortunately, the disc offers an anemic assortment of extras. I was hoping for a bit more—perhaps a director commentary or a more substantial behind-the-scenes featurette. There's just not much here.
First up is The Gospel of the Ladykillers, which comprises two performances by the Abbot Kinney Lighthouse Choir with Rose Stone and the Venice Four. Brief portions of these church-setting performances are included in the film, but here you see them in their entirety. They are Shine On and Trouble Of This World, and they last about 8 minutes.
Danny Ferrington: The Man Behind the Band is an 11-minute look at—you guessed it—Danny Ferrington, the musician who came up with the old-timey instruments (guitars, violins, mandolins) and sounds of the film's fake band. He handcrafted many of these instruments from bare wood, so you'll be surprised by the efforts to achieve realism. The featurette also has some behind-the-scenes video—for example, of the Coens trying out the instruments—and features interviews with Tom Hanks, the Coen Brothers, and, of course, Ferrington. He walks through the instruments one by one. Interesting, but you'll watch this only once.
The 90-second Slap Reel is a collection of many, many takes of Hall slapping Wayans. It's pretty funny stuff, quickly edited for maximum humor.
Scriptscanner is a CD-ROM feature that lets you view and interact with the Coens' script as you view the film. This sounds like the most interesting feature on the disc, and yet it requires a computer to use it.
You also get Sneak Peeks (the first three are forced) for The Last Shot, The Alamo, King Arthur, and Jersey Girl, The Village, Splash, Alias: Season 3, and one for the The Ladykillers soundtrack.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
I'm not saying it's perfect, but The Ladykillers is a Coen Brothers film that definitely deserves a second look. Unfortunately, this DVD is not exactly a celebratory presentation. It's got above-average image and sound quality, but the extras are, at best, of watch-once quality.