The Ladykillers (2004)
“The greatest criminal minds of all time have finally met their match.”
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans, Irma P. Hall
Synopsis: An eccentric, if not charming Southern professor and his crew pose as a classical ensemble in order to rob a casino, all under the nose of his unsuspecting but sharp old landlady.
The Coen Brother’s The Ladykillers was always going to receive a fair amount of flak simply because it’s a remake of a classic cherished by many for whom the Ealing comedies of the 1940s and ‘50s represented the zenith of British comedy. Some movies are sacrosanct to fans — Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and so forth — and the idea of a remake is virtually unthinkable, guaranteeing a hostile reception irrespective of its merits. In its defence, The Ladykillers is a reasonably solid movie which, while remaining true to the storyline of the original, distances itself from it by virtue of its location and crackpot characters.
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips, Saving Mr Banks) is Professor G. H. Dorr, an anachronistic Southern gent whose floridly verbose manner marks him out as a rather fanciful figure. But then most of the characters in The Ladykillers are cartoonish in some way. Dorr is planning to rob a floating casino moored close to the home of the matronly Mrs. Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), and rents a room from her under the pretext of being a member of a renaissance music ensemble who requires a cellar in which to rehearse. The other members of Dorr’s ensemble are a diverse bunch of misfits. There’s Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), a foul-mouthed janitor at the casino, Garth Pancake (JK Simmons – Contraband), an explosives expert, The General (Tzi Ma — Chain Reaction), owner of a doughnut shop and tunnelling expert, and Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst — Saving Private Ryan), a slow but powerful football player. Once Dorr is instated as Mrs. Munson’s new lodger, the gang put into action their plan to tunnel their way to the casino and relieve it of its takings, but they don’t count upon the increasingly suspicious landlady.
The Ladykillers marked a welcome return to comedy for Tom Hanks, and he does well to create a character that shares few of the characteristics of Alec Guinness’s earlier incarnation. Hanks’ nefarious leader appears to have been modelled on Edgar Allan Poe, to whom references are constantly made, and has about him a shabby gentility which, while completely out of place in the modern world, somehow works in the context of the story. However, it’s Irma P. Hall who stands out in a movie that, as you’d expect from the Coen brothers, is filled with memorably quirky characters. She may be a strict landlady, but there’s a warmth underneath that makes her immensely likeable.
The Ladykillers might be an unnecessary remake — but then, most remakes are unnecessary — but it’s a flavourful concoction which revels in its eccentricities and dares to add an entirely different spin on the familiar Ealing comedy.