Sticking to Formula 

The Coen brothers play it fairly straight with remake of British comedy The Ladykillers

The Coen brothers play it fairly straight with remake of British comedy The Ladykillers

Fans of the Coen brothers have suffered through a confusing few years. Since their acclaimed 2001 release The Man Who Wasn't There, the brothers have given us Intolerable Cruelty, with a script by committee, and now The Ladykillers, a remake of a 1955 Ealing Studios comedy. These aren't the idiosyncratic, stylish auteur projects on which the Coens made their reputation. They arrive with mixed pedigrees and exhibit a seemingly obstinate refusal to remix, invent, dazzle and deepen the material that the brothers inherited from others.

Casual moviegoers—at least the ones at my well-attended screening—are judging The Ladykillers on whether it gives them eight bucks' worth of laughs. But followers of the Coens are trying to fit this trifle into the arc of the filmmakers' brilliant 20-year career, and most are finding it sadly wanting. The Coens have always dealt in genre: Miller's Crossing is a gangster flick, The Big Lebowski a private-eye film, The Hudsucker Proxy a double-talking screwball comedy. Fans love these movies for pumping the old formulas full of eye-popping style, exaggerated convention, polished production values and crackerjack dialogue; cinephiles return to them for unexpectedly deep emotions and themes.

So what is The Ladykillers? It's a genre picture: The Ealing comedies were a celebrated British genre in the mid-20th century, centered around harmless or hapless antisocial behavior, small-time crooks, and fantasies about beating the rigid British class system. Charles Crichton and Alexander Mackendrick were its best-known directors. In the original, a criminal gang rob a train while posing as a string quintet for the benefit of their landlady. The Coens transpose the location from London to small-town Mississippi, and the crime from grand theft locomotive to riverboat casino heist, but otherwise the essential plot remains the same: Foiled in their efforts to get away clean by the apparently harmless old woman who rented them their lodgings, the members of the gang destroy themselves one by one.

Tom Hanks, in the Alec Guiness role of a professor-mastermind, revels in the highfalutin dialogue Joel and Ethan put in his mouth. (Like many Coen films, the screenplay almost reads better than the completed film.) Mississippi legislators are "solons," a book is a "folio," a trombone is a "sackbut." His crack team, assembled via newspaper advertisement, consists of a silent former Viet Cong, a slacker custodian at the casino, an idealistic demolitions expert and a lunkheaded tight end who's taken one too many blocks to the chin. The great Irma P. Hall plays the landlady, a sweet but somewhat addled soul who takes pride in her $5 monthly donation to Bob Jones University.

This is a pure drawing-room set piece at its heart—an exercise in comedy that's almost all dialogue and acting. It's almost as if the Coens deliberately restrict their use of camera angles and special effects, focusing instead on the mechanics of timing, delivery and ensemble editing. Such work plays to their strength in writing dialogue, but against their interest in visual storytelling. Yet they break loose with a few deceptively simple sequences that break the mold (though without flash or ostentation), such as a hilarious, protracted point-of-view shot introducing the football player from within his own helmet.

Those expecting the stylistic flourishes, distinctive photography and formula subversion that the Coens made famous, however, will still be waiting while the end credits roll. Like Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers doesn't transform or transcend its inherited blueprint. It revels in the formula, right down to the inherent lack of ambition. But for those willing to explore and enjoy the type itself—for those who don't need ironic distance from its conventions—it's a satisfying piece of work. A trifle, to be sure, but one with plenty of laughs and a gospel soundtrack that can't be beat.

—Donna Bowman


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