Comedy is a tricky art. It involves meticulous timing, clever writing, grand but believable situations, and the right performers to pull it off. And when comedy goes wrong, the result is often uncomfortable to watch. The Coen brothers have perfected the art of comedy, but even with their level of expertise, it is still very easy to make a misstep. While I think The LADYKILLERS is by no means a missed mark, I do think it treads closer to the precipice of disaster than their other comedies. This wavering level of quality is more due to audience expectations, however, than the quality of the film itself.
It is interesting that the Coens chose to remake a 1955 British comedy, as they are known for truly original filmmaking. The brothers write, direct, and produce their films with such a heavy hand that you can often identify their films based on the unique characters, situations, and sometimes soundtrack alone. The source material for THE LADYKILLERS is equally distinct as well. The original film is a bona fide comedic classic, starring Alec Guinness and a very young Peter Sellers, among others. To any cinephile it is canon, and to my father it is practically a religious experience. Remaking a beloved, though not necessarily widely known, film is a risky move for any filmmaker.
THE LADYKILLERS plot has a fairly unique structure. Essentially, the entire film is an extended build up to a superb punch line. Not that the interactions between characters are without their own comedy, but the beauty of the film is in the final act. The film begins when a sleazy con man, who thinks he is successfully camouflaging himself as a music professor, rents a room from a lonely old maid in order to dig a tunnel from her basement to a nearby casino’s vault. He has disguised his band of cohorts as a literal band of musicians who use the basement as practice space. After she inevitable discovers his plot and the criminals’ booty, this ringleader and the misfit criminals attempt to murder a little old god-fearing lady (the film’s title is quite literal) so that she does not turn them in to the police. One by one these men take turns trying to get rid of the landlady, only to have each of them mistakenly kill themselves. To watch each participating character prove exactly how stupid you suspected they were, to their own peril, is hilarious and remarkably satisfying to watch.
The casting of this film might be where the perceived misstep lies for the Coens. This ringleader of the criminally idiotic brigade is Tom Hanks. Hanks’s Professor Dorr is just dripping with slime, and oozing with nastiness. He thinks so highly of himself that he is convinced that his act of integrity is somehow fooling all of those around him. He does fool the little old lady successfully, but we the audience can see right through his façade. Hanks shines in this unconventional role, though I’m not sure if everyone can accept him as such a repugnant character. His performance is a bit scene chewing, but that is exactly what this roll calls for. Also, watching him give orders to kill a church-going woman, who has done no wrong herself, can be a bit jarring coming from the man who America is constantly rooting for in most of his roles.
Throughout the film, Hanks is overshadowed by his jovial nemesis. Irma Hall absolutely shines as Marva Munson, stealing nearly every frame she graces. While Marva is god-fearing and church-going, she is at her very core a busy body. She always drops by the police station to keep them updated on everyone in town. Within the first five minutes of the film alone, she has voiced her first of many tirades against the “hippety-hop” music those darn youths are listening to.
Rather than being an exact remake, the Coen brothers adapted the classic British film. 1950s England became the present day American south, and all of the characters received some sort of tweaking to fit into the film’s new setting. The villains are caricatures, but this fits into the over-the-top nature of their caper and the film’s end.
While I could continue to sing praises for THE LADYKILLERS, it should be mentioned that it somehow never feels like a Coen brothers film. It lacks the quirkiness that you find in RAISING ARIZONA, FARGO, and THE BIG LEBOWSKI. The film also lacks the quoteability of their other work. This by no means weakens the quality of the film itself, but it does mean the audience’s expectations of the film should be adjusted. Perhaps the act of adapting material, rather than creating it for themselves, somehow also stripped away their typical style.