There are two movies in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre that tend to be cited as “the bad ones”: 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s The Ladykillers. I was a fan of the latter when I saw it in theaters and have continued to stand by it even though it was typically dismissed (it sits at 55% on Rotten Tomatoes) and has never had much of a re-evaluation.
But the thing about opinions is that they should be revisited and reexamined. They shouldn’t calcify and be accepted as holy writ. I’m not the same person I was in 2004 or even in 2006-2007 when I last watched the movie. So even though it has sat in my DVD collection, I hadn’t watched it in a while. But with its 15th anniversary arriving, I decided now was the right time to give the film another look. Were the detractors right? Well, yes and no.
For those who are unfamiliar with the movie, it’s a remake of the 1955 Alexander Mackendrick comedy of the same name starring Alec Guiness, Peter Sellers, and Herbert Lom. The plot follows five criminals led by grandiloquent Professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks) who plan to rob a riverboat casino by tunneling to the counting room from the home of the churchgoing Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall). When Ms. Munson discovers their plan, she tells them they have to return the money and go to church with her or she’ll tell the police (the criminals don’t know that the police generally dismiss Munson because she also still “talks” to her deceased husband). The criminals resolve to kill Miss Munson, but because they all suffer from some notable flaw, they bungle it completely.
When I first saw The Ladykillers, I thought it was pretty funny, and I appreciated the set-up and payoff. Each of the criminals is felled by a unique flaw, rendering the film into a Coen-esque morality play of divine judgment (the film is littered with gospel music and variations of the tune “Trouble of This World”). Only the morally upright Munson is the true north even though she’s depicted as unforgiving and uncompromising to the point of not being particularly kind or charitable beyond her giving to Bob Jones University.
But upon a rewatch, the problem that arises is that unlike most Coen Brothers’ movies, there’s not a sympathetic character in the bunch. That’s a result of rendering everyone in the movie as a caricature rather than a person. The Coens have never shied away from silly characters, but you still buy people like H.I. and The Dude as individuals worthy of our sympathy or at least understanding. Even movies like A Serious Man and Barton Fink, featuring tortured egoists, still seem to have an appreciation for what the characters are going through (this sympathy is one of the reasons I’ve never bought the argument that the Coen Brothers are nihilists; you don’t take care of your characters if you don’t care about anything).
However, in The Ladykillers, because they’re working within the framework of a morality play where characters are intended to represent certain virtues or vices, no one gets to feel like a real person. They’re a bunch of cartoon characters in a dark comedy, and sometimes that works. J.K. Simmons’ demolition expert Garth Pancake is incredibly funny with his “Easiest thing in the world” refrain and irritable bowel syndrome. But that caricature can become deeply uncomfortable when you get to a character like Marlon Wayans’ Gawain MacSam. Gawain’s vice is that he’s a hothead, but he plays like an offensive stereotype of an angry young black man.
The Ladykillers is an equal-opportunity offender in that Garth is just as vapid as Gawain, but there’s a way to make characters seem shallow without resorting to stereotypes. And because Munson is rendered just as shallow, her virtues come off as sharp and unkind. She’s morally upright, but also shown as kind of a rube, a black woman happily donating money to a university that didn’t enroll Africans or African-Americans until 1971 and had a policy against interracial dating and marriage until 2000.
The movie still abides by the moral framework the Coens tend to operate in—good fortune is capricious but ill fortune is swift and unforgiving—but in The Ladykillers it feels inert and simplistic because the comedy has gone too broad. The comedy is still Coenesque, but it’s not playing at the brilliant level of something like The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou? Most of the jokes are largely forgettable even though you can tell that the Coens and Hanks are having a ball with the long-winded Dorr. At best, it’s a movie that works in spurts with individual scenes clicking but never adding up to something that endures.
Looking back at The Ladykillers, it’s clear now that this isn’t a Coen film that was merely overlooked or forgotten like their 2001 film The Man Who Wasn’t There (which I have rewatched within the last five years, and it holds up wonderfully). It’s a movie that has some serious flaws, and while I still wouldn’t go so far as to qualify it as a “bad” movie, it lacks the cohesion, the thought, and the heart that have made the majority of the Coen Brothers’ filmography a collection of classics.