The Ladykillers


REVIEW by Willard Manus

The Coen brothers have been responsible for some excellent movies--think Raising Arizona, Fargo and Blood Simple--but they've laid an egg with their latest feature, THE LADYKILLERS. This remake of the 1955 British classic comedy of the same name starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers has some funny moments, but on the whole it has been dumbed down to Three Stooges level.

The original LADYKILLERS was droll, witty and understated, with Guinness playing an old biddy who inadvertently gets involved with four bumbling criminals. As directed by D. Alexander Mackendrick and written by William Rose, the film was a small gem that depended on character and situation for its humor. In the Coens' hands, caricature and cartoonery are uppermost, not to speak of profanity and flatulence. Mackendrick and Rose must be spinning in their graves.

The Coens have kept the basic setup of the original, but the four bumblers have been expanded to five. They are played by Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma and Ryan Hurst, with an assist from Diane Delano as Simmons' main squeeze, Mountain Girl. They all try desperately to be funny, mugging, pratfalling, swapping loud jokes and insults, but the more they try, the harder they fall.

Hanks is the star of the film, of course. As the bogus Professor G.H. Dorr, he wears the goatee and shabby white suit made famous by Colonel Sanders of fried-chicken fame. He also speaks in a pompous, mock-southern way, like a slightly demented Tennesee Williams hero. Such a role is a big departure for Hanks, but there is a heaviness to his performance that makes itself felt throughout. He simply does not have Guinness' deft, masterful touch with comedy.

Irma P. Hall (the matriarch in Soul Food) has been cast as Mrs Munson, proprietor of the Mississippi boarding house where Prof. Dorr rents a room. Mrs Munson is a widowed and respectable church-going lady whose house abuts the counting-room of the riverboat gambling casino Prof. Dorr wishes to rob.

His plan involves Gawain (Wayans), a janitor at the casino who is the gang's inside man. A loud braggart with a chip on his shoulder--and a pistol in his pocket--Gawain is such a caricature of an angry young black dude, with his dreadlocks and gangsta attitude, that I wouldn't be surprised if the Coen brothers were sued for slander by the NAACP.

Simmons (Buffalo Bill in Hidalgo) plays Garth Pancake, a demolitions man whose expertise is needed to blast an underground tunnel between the Munson house and the stash. Garth runs around in a pith helmet, handlebar moustache and short-shorts. As if that weren't bizarre enough, he also suffers from Irritated Bowel Syndrome, which later becomes a big plot point. Toilet humor is alive and well in Hollywood.

Tzi Ma is The General, a Vietnamese ex-army officer with a Hitler moustache and a stern, inscrutable Asian bearing (more racial stereotyping). He utters few words but is given a comic shtick involving a lit cigarette which he pretends to swallow-- ad infinitum.

Hurst impersonates Lump, a big, dumb, ex-pro football player whose brawn is needed to carry the rubble out of the tunnel. The NFL will probably join the NAACP in its suit against THE LADYKILLERS.

Mixed in with all the farce and slapstick are some rousing moments featuring the gospel music of The Soul Stirrers, Bill Landford and the Landfordaires, Blind Willie Johnson and the Swan Silvertones, among others. They sing their hearts out but are unable to save this unpleasant and unfortunate film.