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LADYKILLERS, THE (2004)

SYNOPSIS:
Eccentric professor-turned-criminal Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, PhD (Tom Hanks) finds a room to rent in the house of Black American widow Marve Munson ( Irma P. Hall), which is fortunately located on shore and adjacent to a New Orleans riverboat casino he plans to relieve of its cash. He poses to be the leader of a refined group of musicians (Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst) who, while pretending to be rehearsing, begin tunnelling from Marve's cellar to the casino's underground safe. Keeping this a secret from their landlady is hard, but simple in comparison to completing the heist in secret. When Marve finds out, the gang has to decide how to silence her. And it's fatal.

Review by Louise Keller:
The storyline comes from the 1955 British comedy classic; the execution is pure Coen Brothers, with bawdy, irreverent black humour where crass is the replacement for understatement. The Ladykillers is a hybrid: a mix of shallow laughs with character-caricatures. Eccentric has been replaced by outright off-the-wall and obvious.

The Coen Brothers and everyone else seem to be having a great time. Just look at Tom Hanks as the mannered, goofy-toothed professor with the PhD ('Is that Fudd, as in Elmer Fudd?'); he looks as though he might lay an egg if he keeps up the act. His erudite, plum-voiced Professor G.H. Dorr is indeed larger-than-life, but in a vaudevillian way, and the members of the gang make me think of The Village People. It's hard to beat Alec Guinness' Professor Marcus in the original and Hanks is playing his version of Guinness. Admittedly there are few actors other than Guinness (who played Professor Marcus in the original, and the likes of Peter Sellers), whose ability to play a real character is both brilliant and convincing.

The best we can expect is to enjoy the performances for what they are; as part of a storyline, they are less than satisfying. Not surprisingly, this new version lacks the charm of the original, but on a superficial level there are some droll notions, including a dog in a gas mask, a digit-loving ginger-cat, a general who hides his burning cigarette in his mouth, and a crook called Pancake who met his girlfriend Mountain Girl on an Irritable Bowel Singles weekend. The rousing gospel music that forms the film's rhythmic backdrop is terrific, but the memorable musical ingredient of the original - Boccherini's minuet - is discarded as a bit of a throwaway.

'There are two kinds of folks; those that got da piles and those that will get da piles,' muses Irma P. Hall's Mrs Munson, a non-nonsense big mama who loves da gospel music, her cat Pickles and looks as though she has just dismounted from a horse. Mrs Munson is as far removed from Katie Hall's umbrella-losing, shrunken, frail little old lady as you can imagine, so that wonderful juxtaposition of the helpless elderly pitted against the crafty gang intent to pull off a caper, is not even attempted. Hall gives a rollicking, good-natured performance, and I laughed out loud when Mrs Munson spies the professor hiding under the bed (with his cup of tea), when trying to avoid the visiting sheriff. Watch too, for an Oscar-winning performance from the four-legged feline.

Of course, it is ludicrous to imagine that a film like The Ladykillers could be remade - even by the Coen Brothers - and towards the end found myself eagerly waiting for the body count to add up, so I could go home and revisit the original.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
One thing we can learn from The Ladykillers (2004 version) is that there are innumerable, large, flat, garbage-bag laden floating platforms dragged by tugboats down the Mississippi every night. Where the rubbish comes from and whence it goes is a mystery. But they pass under the bridge of our small Baptist community as often as the gospel singers burst into a spiritual on a Sunday. Yeah, that many.

The Coen Brothers are an acquired taste and I've acquired them, but you don't have to dig every work of an artist to maintain respect for their work. The Ladykillers has all the cinematic invention these filmmakers are known for, and some great offbeat humour. The story, re-fashioned and re-located from the English 1955 original into the Southern ambiance of the US, continues to amuse. But only just.

What makes this film less than satisfying is the misjudgment about the tone of the characters. Everyone but Irma P. Hall is play acting; every other character is not just off the wall, but off the ham scale. This provides fun for anyone whose demands are slight, but for real grip, I need real characters. These hapless thieves are overplayed and contrived, like childish drawings of stick men (without the naïve charm). The comedy is broad, but the humour is thin.

The intricately created (and named) Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, PhD is a Tom Hanks acting masterclass ... for theatre. It's large and it's fruity, as the character is intended to be, but it's also far too flimsy to be real. Hanks can do better than this, by a country mile. The magnitude of his talent actually diminishes this role; with this and the other characterisation weaknesses, the direction ends up looking self indulgent, ruining scenes that are great to make but bore the audience.

There is one thing, though, that strikes me as filmmaking brio: the Coens juxtapose Southern drawl with street hip hop, both in style and substance. Marlon Wayans and Irma P. Hall surely represent the most extreme or polar opposites of Black Americans on screen. His language is contempo crude, blue and attitude driven, where hers is restrained, conservative, God fearing and old fashioned. This is the film's only attempt at saying something, but it ain't enough. Besides, I'm not sure what it is, except perhaps as an aside to say how much things have changed in Black American society.

The Coens say they admire the original, and sure, the sincerest form of flattery is imitation. But please don't do it anymore, you're mature enough as filmmakers to stick to your own inventions. They're worth the pain of creation.

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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 0
Unfavourable: 2
Mixed: 0

TRAILER

LADYKILLERS, THE (2004) (M)
(US, 2004)

CAST: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, Diane Delano, George Wallace

PRODUCER: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Tom Jacobson, Barry Josephson, Barry Sonnenfeld

DIRECTOR: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

SCRIPT: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (William Rose - original 1955 movie)

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Roger Deakins

EDITOR: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

MUSIC: Carter Burwell

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Dennis Glassner

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: BVI

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 19, 2004







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