Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Ladykillers
Review by Sombrero Grande

The Coen brothers present yet another offering in their ever-growing repertoire of films concerning bungled criminal capers--each possessing a different style, locale and crime--with the dark comedy The Ladykillers. A staggeringly diverse small group of misfits are employed by the elegant and crafty Professor Dorr (Tom Hanks) to aid him in breaking into a floating casino’s underground vault. Dorr’s plan involves tunneling into said vault from the homeport of an old woman’s root cellar where Dorr and his crew masquerade as classical musicians renting a room for rehearsals. While the tunneling part of the job hits a few minor snags, Dorr and his comrades run into even more challenging roadblocks to fortune with the nothing-gets-by-me keen eyes of the old woman (Irma P. Hall).

The Ladykillers offers up fun performances, lots of laughs, striking visuals and gospel music that had me tapping my feet on the way to my car, yet there remains something about the movie that leaves me feeling rather tepid about the film as a whole and hesitant to recommend it.

But first let me tell you about the various ingredients I liked in The Ladykillers. To start with, there’s Tom Hanks. I know it’s corny and I know it’s been said many, many times before by many, many other reviewers, but Tom Hanks is a brilliant actor. His portrayal of Professor Dorr is a kind of amalgamation of a goofball, a scholar, a con-man and Colonel Sanders all rolled into one, and Hanks manages each of these character touches with great skill, crafting a character that is not only believable but fascinating and thoroughly entertaining to watch.

If Hank’s performance feels at all cartoony at times, that only reaffirms its perfect fit in this film. I said before that Looney Tunes Back In Action is perhaps the best “cartoon” feel a live-action film has ever captured for me, but now I’m leaning towards handing that award in some respects to The Ladykillers. This is not to say that The Ladykillers is merely a live-action cartoon, but I can clearly (and gladly) see the zany, madcap essence of animation alive and kicking in the overall style of this film. Can you honestly tell me that the island of garbage doesn’t feel like something out of a cartoon? Or Garth Pancake’s handlebar mustache? The treatment given to Mr. Pancake’s “incidents” with explosives reminded me in a big way of Yosemite Sam’s run-ins with TNT. Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons and Futurama) once said that if you want to have a memorable cartoon character, ensure they have a memorable profile. In that case, yes, I would definitely consider Marlon Wayans’ Gawain character’s hair to place him in the memorable profile category. Rounding out Dorr’s team are Lump, a very cartoony “lump” of dumb muscle with a voice reminiscent of Mongo in Blazing Saddles, and The General, who silently emits a nearly-constant outpouring of smoke which gives him something akin to the appearance of a stone Chinese dragon. Yes, they are all cartoony, but the truly fun part of all this is that they are handled in such a manner as to make them still believable.

The development of the characters is nicely done in this film. Take for instance, Lump. He’s essentially a little more than a dumb jock stereotype, and any other film or filmmakers would probably just have presented him as such with a line of dialogue or a throwaway joke. The Coen brothers introduce us to Lump in an ingenious way that makes him feel like a real person. For a few minutes, the Coens place us, the viewers, inside Lump. We peer through his eyes out of his football helmet as he infuriates his teammates with several idiotic, play-ruining bungles to the point where his coach smacks Lump upside the head with his clipboard. We never actually see Lump throughout any of the football scenes, but by the time we do see him he feels like a real person because we were given some time to see the world through his eyes. In short, he’s Lump, he’s Lump, he’s Lump; we’re in his head. … Okay, I sincerely apologize for that last sentence. I won’t spoil any of the other characters’ introductions (since another thing I really liked about The Ladykillers is that I was never totally sure how everything would unfold and I don’t want to give anything away) but they all do a nice job of unveiling the story’s participants in an effective and novel manner.

I’d be a fool if I didn’t mention the cinematography in this film. The camera angles provide for some striking visuals--especially those on the bridge pertaining to the junk boats and grim reaper gargoyles, which I know will happily haunt my mind for years to come. It’s this kind of delicious eye candy that not only reinforces the cartoon-like feel of the film but also makes the action a lot of fun to look at--so it wasn’t surprising at all for me to see Barry Sonnenfeld’s name listed as a producer. For those unfamiliar with Sonnenfeld’s name, he’s the director of such films as The Addams Family, Men In Black and Wild Wild West. While I don’t know if I could label many of his directorial works as “good” films, they all possess lots of fun camerawork. Sonnenfeld started out as a cinematographer, even working with the Coen brothers previously on Raising Arizona, and he has a very fun and distinctive style of camerawork that is all his own. I think the problem began for Sonnenfeld when he was given the reigns of not just a camera but an entire film. Sure movies like The Addams Family are visually fun, but the stories and characters aren’t terribly involving…which brings me to the reason The Ladykillers left me tepid.

What, you may ask, is it about this film, which I’ve been praising up and down so far, that keeps me from giving it a rousing recommendation? The characters were all interesting…but now that I think about it, I didn’t really CARE about any of them. Yes, they all had their unique personalities, quirks and smart introductions, but in the end I never really cared whether anyone succeeded. About the only thing I DID care about (like any civilized human being) is that the old woman shouldn’t get shot in the head. In the midst of the caper and the cartoon-like wackiness, I don’t think I ever became invested in the story. I don’t mean this to sound like the cartoony feel torpedoed the emotional impact of the story, or even go so far as to blame something like Sonnenfeld’s involvement in The Ladykillers; I just think the film is missing a vital scene where the audience could come to honestly care about the old woman, Dorr, or anything that’s happening. Yes, the movie is very entertaining, skillfully directed and a lot of fun, but the missing emotional component leaves it feeling ultimately hollow. I guess in that way The Ladykillers could be equated to a cinematic chocolate Easter rabbit; it’s a tasty treat but is missing its core. Afterwards you continue about your business pretty much as if you’d never had it.


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