The Coen Project Part 11: The Ladykillers

I’m declaring The Ladykillers officially underrated. A comedy that takes place mostly inside one house over the course of a few days, it’s the smallest and least ambitious of the filmography so far, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do with aplomb.

The Ladykillers is technically the worst-reviewed movie in the Coen Brother canon: it comes in at 55% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, barely edged out by The Hudsucker Proxy at 56%. The self-indulgent Proxy deserved all the critical flak it got, but I’m declaring The Ladykillers officially underrated. A comedy that takes place mostly inside one house over the course of a few days, it’s the smallest and least ambitious of the filmography so far, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do with aplomb. It returns to the Coens’ core competency: idiots doing stupid stuff. Set in Mississippi, it’s also a return to the American South, one of the most important locales in the Coen-verse.

Incidentally, The Ladykillers is the first remake in the Coens’ catalog: it’s based on a 1955 British black comedy of the same name starring Alec Guiness. The bones of the story are left unchanged: a group of criminals pose as classical musicians in order to use an old woman’s basement as the starting point for a tunnel-based heist scheme. The lady catches on, and therefore must be killed — hence The Ladykillers.

The Coens take the liberty of replacing all of the characters with weirdos their own invention, and this is where their version shines. Yes, these characters are one-dimensional, but this is essentially a live-action cartoon — having five fully fleshed out human beings would not be fitting for the tone nor the scope. 

The Ladykillers embraces the heist trope of the Team Assemblage Sequence, introducing each member by demonstrating their heist-relevant attributes. Gawain (Marlon Wayans) has no skills other than being a custodian at the target of the operation, a floating casino. Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) is an annoyingly optimistic “jack of all trades” who can handle the necessary explosives, hampered only by a persistent case of irritable bowel syndrome. A Vietnamese man known only as “The General” (Tzi Ma) is a functionally mute tunneling expert. College football reject Lump (Ryan Hurst) is the “blunt instrument” by which obstacles to the team’s ends will be removed.

At the center of it all is Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D., a professor of classics who appears to have walked off of the pages of a William Faulkner novel. Played by Tom Hanks in an impressive Coen-verse debut, Dorr talks his way out of every situation as though he’s reciting poetry. He also actually recites poetry. People like G.H. Dorr no longer exist in reality, if they ever did, but it doesn’t matter. The character is a vehicle for fun and ridiculous dialogue, simultaneously over-the-top academic and over-the-top Southern. Here’s Dorr describing the particulars of the building they’re attempting to rob: 

The door itself is of redoubtable Pittsburgh steel. When the casino closes this entire underground complex is locked up, and the armed guard retreats to the casino’s main entrance. There, then, far from the guard, reposes the money, behind a five-inch-thick steel portal, yes. But the walls… the walls are but humble masonry behind which is only the soft, loamy soil deposited over centuries by the Old Man, the meanderin’ Mississippi, as it fanned its way back and forth across the great alluvial plain, leaving earth.

Revisiting The Ladykillers after seeing The Post in theaters reminded me of how broad Tom Hanks’ skill set is. This is maybe his most mannered and directly comedic role, and he owns the character with as much commitment and specificity as any comic actor. 

The Ladykillers can be thought of as a companion piece to the Coens’ other Southern-set comedy, O Brother Where Art Thou.  It technically takes place in the present day, but it has a similar vintage feel as the depression-era O Brother. Both films are steeped in religious themes, however ironically — The Ladykillers finds its group of robbers debating the ethicality of different methods of murdering their devout elderly host. Mirroring the old-timey spirituals of O Brother, the evildoings are underscored by gospel music selections by producer T. Bone Burnett — The Soul Stirrer’s “O Brother Let us Go Back To God” is a repeated theme, played every time someone’s body is unceremoniously dumped onto a trash barge. 

Stray Observations:

  • As with Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens were originally only hired to write the script for The Ladykillers.  Barry Sonnenfeld, their cinematographer on Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Raising Arizona, was slated to direct but had to back out of the job.
  • This is the second Coen Film, after The Big Lebowski, where the plot to some degree hinges on a severed digit, in this case Mr. Pancake’s finger. 
  • The obligatory repeated line also goes to J.K. Simmon’s Mr. Pancake: “Easiest thing in the world!”
  • Dorr is the first character in the Coen-verse to speak the phrase “would that it were so simple”. I can’t wait for Hail Caeser. 

The Coen Project Part 10: Intolerable Cruelty

As far as rom-coms go, it’s a lot more com than rom. This is partly by design; the Coens are more interesting in playing with screwball and noir elements and crafting rapid-fire dialogue than they are in portraying an actual romantic relationship.

Intolerable Cruelty is the first Coen Brothers movie that isn’t entirely a Coen Brothers movie — it’s based on a concept by John Romano, which was adapted into a screenplay by the writing team of Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. Joel and Ethan were brought in to do a re-write pass on the script, their first gig as writers-for-hire. After the project had bounced around in development for years with a handful of directors (including Ron Howard) attached to it, the Coens were given the opportunity to take it to production. With their ambitious planned adaptation of the World War II novel To the White Sea recently cancelled due to budgeting issues, they jumped on Intolerable Cruelty, a chance to put their spin on a forties-style screwball romantic comedy. And if you’re going to make a screwball comedy, you’d be insane not to cast George Clooney.

Clooney plays Miles Massey, an ace Los Angeles divorce attorney and author of the Massey pre-nup, the most financially iron-clad contract in the game. Get a Massey pre-nup, and you can be assured that both parties are in the union for love only. Miles takes the case of the wealthy Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann), whose wife Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has finally caught him cheating and intends to “nail his ass” in the divorce proceedings. Turns out divorcing rich and stupid men is basically Marylin’s job, and Miles sets out to expose her serial gold-digging. But of course, things get complicated. In the course of the twists and turns that follow love is declared, murder is attempted, and a Massey prenup gets dramatically ripped apart no less than three times.

As far as rom-coms go, it’s a lot more com than rom. This is partly by design; the Coens are more interesting in playing with screwball and noir elements and crafting rapid-fire dialogue than they are in portraying an actual romantic relationship. The two leads also don’t have the best chemistry — Catherine Zeta-Jones in particular doesn’t contribute any warmth to the pairing. 

Despite the possible miscast of Zeta-Jones, the rest of the players bring their comedic A-game to the script. In a hilarious and probably intentional contrast to his role as the dead silent Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Billy Bob Thorton plays another of Marilyn’s dupe husbands, an oil tycoon who won’t shut up. Richard Jenkins is in his  exasperated wheelhouse as Marylin’s outgunned attorney, who has a penchant for yelling “objection!” before thinking through what he’s objecting to. And having only previously known the late Edward Herrmann as the grandpa from Gilmore Girls, it was fun to see him go full-on gross old man as Rexroth. 

Since they didn’t originate the script, It’s impossible to know for certain how much of the dialogue is the Coens’ writing, but nearly all of it bears their unmistakable smart-yet-stupid signature. They clearly had way too much fun with the latitude afforded by the genre, resulting in exchanges such as the following:

Rex Rexroth: Have you sat before her before?

Miles Massey: No. No, the judge sits first. Then we sit.

Rex Rexroth: Well, have you sat after her before?

Wrigley: Sat after her before? You mean, have we argued before her before?

Miles Massey: The judge sits in judgment. The counsel argues before the judge.

Rex Rexroth: So, have you argued before her before?

Wrigley: Before her before, or before she sat before?

I’m willing to guess that the Coens also added much of the funny physical business that adds to the characters, most notably Miles Massey’s habit of whitening his teeth at every opportunity. It’s impressive how completely they were able to make the film their own, despite it not being their original story. Intolerable Cruelty fits into the Coen-verse seamlessly.

In the climactic scene, Miles throws away his script during the keynote address at a Las Vegas divorce law conference and instead launches into a heartfelt speech about the value of love and the poison of cynicism:

“Now I am of course aware that these remarks will be received here with cynicism – cynicism; that cloak that advertises our indifference and hides all human feeling. Well I’m here to tell you that that cynicism, which we think protects us in fact destroys – destroys love, destroys our clients and ultimately destroys ourselves.”

My initial read on this monologue was that the Coens were using the character’s words to address the repetitive and unfounded criticism that their work is cynical. But knowing them, it’s probably meant as more of a send-up than a refutation of their critics. And since there isn’t a lot of warmth in this film otherwise (Miles and Marilyn are no Marge and Norm) it’s highly likely that they’re just messing with us. You want sincerity? Oh, here you go.

Stray Observations:

  • Film nerd reference: the movie playing during Rex Rexroth’s bed-bouncing demise is Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, which appropriately is about a murderous railroad engineer.
  • Best grounds for objection: poetry recitation, strangling the witness.