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The Coen Brothers' Ladykillers: Sublime, ridiculous, artistic and brilliant!
on July 22, 2009
Ever since I first watched this film a couple years ago, I have been amazed at the bad rap it has gotten. It is just about lost as an entry in the Coen Brothers' formidable body of work, and yet I believe it is unjustly condemned. Many people do not see past the crude one-liners and stereotyped characters into the visual poetry and subtle irony that make it funny on a completely different level from the one that floats on the surface (like the barge that carries the trash of the town to the allegorically mythical "garbage island" in the movie).
For one thing, I really enjoyed the "Seven Samurai" method of gathering the caper gang, with the individual introductions showcasing not their strengths but their unique foibles and own personal brands of idiocy to be concentrated once they are gathered into Tom Hanks' professorial circle of "musician" thieves. On one hand, they work well together, their ostensible reasons for hiring being their professed qualifications; but as their acquaintances deepen, the broad individual comedy becomes syncretic and we are treated to the amusing spectacle of a bungling ex-hippie liberal civil rights activist spouting his old left-wing dogma to a modern gangsta black man who just doesn't give a crap "because I don't vote." The resumes are delicately presented by Hanks' too-genteel Professor Dorr; I guffawed when he introduced "The General" (Tzi Ma in a wonderfully understated and yet physically deft performance reminiscent of W.C. Fields or a dachshund-take your pick) as a man with "massive tunneling experience in the jungles of Southeast Asia," thus suggesting the Viet Cong without coming out and saying it.
Hanks himself is the very picture of an overdone Southern gentleman, so much so that we can scarcely believe it to be a real person he's portraying but that it must be a put-on. Professor Dorr is presented with imagery that suggests the entry of Old Scratch himself, his unusual curled coiffure suggesting horns and his smooth Southern gentleman act the very picture of the obvious liar and con-man. Ms. Munson is at first charmed and then, as she discerns the nature of his character, she sees right through the "doubletalk." Oddly, Dorr's caricature persona sticks even throughout the travails of the caper; even when he is under stress and in private, he does not break the "Professor Dorr" mask of character; his portrayal leads us to wonder if Dorr is more of a mental case than a hardened criminal. For one thing, he doesn't seem to be in need of money. He easily sends Ms. Munson and a friend to a concert many miles away in a limo; for Professor Dorr, it is the artistic nature of the "perfect crime" that interests him, not so much getting rich, although it is definitely a factor (here he seems to approach the Guinness character more closely).
The Coen brothers suggest by music, Bible verse and various sinister signs that perhaps Dorr is an agent of Satan, a test for the pure-hearted Ms. Munson. Irma Hall in this role is just unforgettable; the very picture of a god-fearing, principled and feisty old black lady who takes her preacher very seriously but doesn't quite understand what he's saying. When she goes on about "tunkeloparzen" at the Sheriff's office, it is gibberish, but somehow she is trying to quote the sermon from Daniel, Chapter 5, on the "writing on the wall" (Mene mene tekel upharsen) at the Feast of Belshazzar but fails and creates the idea in the minds of the underemployed members of the Sheriff's office that she's got several screws loose. (Incidentally, this message in the Bible is written by a disembodied finger, thus linking the beginning and end of this film with perfectly symmetrical Biblical imagery--the warning of the kingdom about to fall).
It is, in essence, a tale of heavenly and poetic justice. Everyone gets his or her just rewards, but the road by which this happens is fraught with supreme irony; and the one-liners and stereotypes are but window-dressing in this allegorical tale.
There are many elements shared from the earlier Ealing Studios film, but this entry is so thoroughly reworked and imbued with not only deep symbolic imagery but with over-the-top modern caricature that it defies being pigeonholed as a "crude comedy," which has been the wont of some reviewers. What you get out of this film depends on how closely you look at it and how finely developed your sense of ironic humor is. The parts described by some as "boring" are actually points of characterization and also setups for later ironic denouements. One could almost say that Poe's Imp of the Perverse was driving the action: the gangsta puts on his act but in the end he is moved by something very un-gangstalike. The ex-hippie liberal makes a show of caring for the rights of the underdog but is, in the end, just a greedy whiner whose very biological being is also "irritated." Lump is clueless, but by the time he gets a clue, well...you'll see. And The General I cannot praise highly enough. He has very little dialogue but evokes the spirit of W.C. Fields in many ways. In fact, I think the cigarette trick he does is one of Fields' tricks. He can also put on the face of the "innocent dachshund" when Ms. Munson reprimands him to perfection. And yet, of all of them, he seems to be the most hardened of tough guys. My favorite of his quotes, when asked by Dorr if there isn't a "middle way" according to Buddhism: "You must float like a leaf on the river of life...and kill old lady." So we see Buddhism doesn't offer the wicked a way out either! (Sorry, I find that funny).
To sum up I will say that this film may be enjoyed on several levels; those of you who are jaded with the stereotypical comedic portrayals of the gathered criminals may turn it off, disgusted with the lack of fresh characterization, but if one views the whole with the visual cues that suggest Mississippi as a balmy stage for a bizarre battle between good and evil and the poetic irony that assails the criminals in the most hilarious manner possible--the movie becomes both sublime AND ridiculous. The sermons, seen by many as unnecessary and run-on, closely accord with the action and the tests put before Ms. Munson. Even though she seems to miss the intended message sometimes, she is pure of heart and therefore beloved of God.
An interesting note about her dead husband, Othar: it is possible that he may be based in part on the well-known fife player Othar Turner, who also "burned his own fife," as Ms. Munson is telling Professor Dorr in a quiet scene. This same scene also contains a horrid joke about "blowing the shofar," which has to be explained to us Gentiles, but to a Jew it'd be a side-splitter, if a crude one. But that about sums up the way comedy is presented in this film. The most hilarious parts are not always the ones that are the most obvious, but as a whole, it is transcendentally funny. Did I mention how beautiful the photography is in this film? The motif of the garbage barge moving slowly through, receiving the refuse from the caper, inexorable but undeniable, the gargoyles of the bridge performing their ancient functions with the help of Poe's raven... the sleepy Southern town purges its evil. This film is both comedic and highly artistic, and I'd expect no less from the Coen Brothers.