Director Deep Dive: The Ladykillers

Director Deep Dive is a chronological look into a director’s filmography to see how they and their works grow and change.

By 2004, the Coens had firmly established themselves as screenwriters and directors, attracting buzz with each new project. With twenty years in the business under their belt and a desire to not repeat themselves, the brothers set out for another career first: a remake. True to their idiosyncratic nature, the duo chose a classic British comedy known for its pitch black humor and eclectic band of criminals.

It’s easy to watch the 1955 version of The Ladykillers and see a blueprint for the Coens’ own work. Filled with quirky criminals who all take turns attempting to stab each other in the back. The original film is a dark comedy that finds equal room for quips and slapstick. There might not be a better choice of film for the duo to remake. Which makes it strange that they were not the first choice.

For the second time in a row, The Coens signed on to only write the screenplay. What became 2004’s The Ladykillers was originally set to be a reunion between the brothers and their early cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld, who would direct. Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, but his influence still creeps into the film. It often feels like the Coens are doing their best impression of Sonnenfeld’s broader comedic style.

The remake follows many of the same story beats as the original, but with a more complex and “Americanized” plot. Well-meaning, god-fearing widow Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) runs afoul of the verbose Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks). Dorr feigns interest in renting the spare room in Marva’s home and eventually convinces her to let his classical music troupe play in her basement. This is all a clever ruse for Dorr and his band of criminals to stage their elaborate heist of a nearby casino. That the plan requires building a tunnel from Marva’s house to the underground vault adds an extra thick layer of ridiculousness to the proceedings.

The Ladykillers is by far the broadest comedy that the Coens have produced. Each of the criminals has a distinct role in the heist while also having a one-note comedic trait that they repeatedly hit throughout the film. You have the mostly silent tunneling expert (Tzi Ma), the dim-witted muscle (Ryan Hurst), the hotheaded inside man (Marlon Wayans), and the demolitions expert who suffers from chronic IBS (J. K. Simmons). Yes, that’s right, this is a movie that not only features repeated poop jokes but also uses them as a plot device. I’d admire the audacity of it all if it was actually funny.

Thankfully, not everything in the film is as dire. Roger Deakins returns once again and gives us his usual excellent work. His vibrant visuals are sometimes the only thing keeping you invested in what’s on the screen. T Bone Burnett also returns and curates a soundtrack focused on southern gospel. While it doesn’t give the film a unique identity in the way it did for O Brother, it helps establish the setting. I wish we had more of it throughout the movie.

Tom Hanks, breaking bad for the first time in his career, clearly relishes playing the loathsome Goldthwaite. Played with a southern accent that verges on too wacky, Hanks turns Goldthwaite into the intellectual version of George Clooney’s Everett McGill. He is charming and sleazy in equal measure and the Coens seem to understand he is the star of this entire show given the amount of dialogue he has. It is a testament to Hank’s skills that I never tired of seeing this outrageous character on the screen.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the supporting cast. J. K. Simmons is an incredible actor who seems like a perfect fit for the Coen brothers’ style. Instead, he spends most of the film trying not to shit his pants. Tzi Ma and Ryan Hurst land some solid jokes, but their characters are too one dimensional to care about. Marlon Wayans has the misfortune of playing a walking Black stereotype who talks in forced slang and draws a gun on anyone who looks at him funny. Irma P. Hall almost falls into a similar trap, but imbues Mrs. Munson with enough warmth to make her someone worth rooting for. She becomes the clear standout of the supporting cast by suggesting there is a real person under the cartoonish shenanigans.

While The Ladykillers proved to be a modest financial success, it received mixed reviews from critics. Yet another example of an American remake of a British property that failed to live up to the original. The film became the low point in the Coen’s career, an example of their comic energy taking a turn into self-parody.

There are plenty of problems with The Ladykillers, but its lack of actual comedy is the biggest flaw. So many jokes reek of the desperation you’d find in a low-rent comedy. That the Coens wrote both this and The Big Lebowski seems unfathomable. The duo’s impeccable quality was bound to falter at some point. After all, few directors have perfect filmographies. Thankfully, the rebound was just around the corner.

Next Time: The Coens break out of their rut with their first direct adaptation, No Country For Old Men.

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