Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Ladykillers



USA 2004 : Joel & Ethan COEN 2004 : 104 mins

Respectable African-American widower Marva Munson (Irma Hall) takes in a new lodger: Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks), classicist, aesthete – and criminal mastermind. Dorr is plotting an audacious heist on a nearby riverboat casino’s money-vault and assembles a crack team who meet regularly in Marva’s basement under the pretext of performing “early Renaissance music.” The robbery is a relatively smooth affair – but when the virtuous Marva rumbles t scheme, the gang reluctantly realise that she must be bumped off…

It’s been six long years since the last truly worthwhile Coens film, The Big Lebowski – and their last two efforts (The Man Who Wasn’t There and Intolerable Cruelty) were easily their worst to date. Remaking such a renowned Ealing classic (directed by Alexander McKendrick in 1955), meanwhile, seemed like an unwise, desperate, perverse choice. Who, for example, could possibly fill the shoes of Alec Guinness (the original ‘Professor’)? Geoffrey Rush, possibly. John Malkovich, perhaps. But Tom Hanks? When was the last time he had us rolling in the aisles?

As Dorr finds to his cost, however, things seldom transpire as one expects. Against overwhelming odds, this Ladykillers is a true comic treat from start to finish – and easily the brothers’ most satisfying, coherent movie since their peerless 1984 debut Blood Simple. They sensibly retain only the basic (solid) structure of William Rose’s original screenplay: the details are hilariously idiosyncratic and original, informed by their inspired decision to shift location from London to the Deep South (not that far from Rose’s Missouri birthplace, in fact).

And the strike-rate of gags is so high from the start that memories of the original are soon banished – this version is perhaps closer in tone to larkish low-rent heist-capers like Welcome to Collinwood and Palookaville, with their oddball galleries of feuding lowlifes. But this is a much classier production, behind the camera at least. T-Bone Burnett’s terrific selection of gospel numbers works even better than his bluegrass compilation on the mega-selling soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? Roger Deakins’ colour cinematography – a world away from his monochrome magic in The Man Who Wasn’t There – and Dennis Gassner’s production-design create a recognisably modern-day world with just the faintest hint of fantastical exaggeration, and some surreal, deadpan grace-notes (the scavenging, scattering seagulls; a soaring, airborne cape…)

While there are no weak links in the ensemble cast, the picture does revolve around Hanks’s wonderfully sly and dextrous central performance as the verbose Dorr: his work here comfortably outstrips the weightier dramatic roles for which he’s been clocking up so many awards since he went ‘serious.’ The Ladykillers isn’t going to trouble the Academy come next spring, of course – Stateside reviews were knee-jerk hostile, leading to disappointingly tepid box-office returns. Nevertheless, it’ll be a pleasant surprise if Hollywood comes up with anything so accomplished and entertaining this year.

14th June, 2004
(seen 4th June : Vue, Leicester : press show – Cinema Days event)

by Neil Young