Joel and Ethan Coen are among the most baroquely perverse filmmakers around, and The Ladykillers, based on perhaps the most perverse English film comedy ever made, is in their best range. It’s both lowdown and effete, a jamboree of whoopee jokes and sick wit. Not all of it is successful, and at times we might be watching Dumb and Dumber with a college degree. But even at their most adolescent, the brothers don’t make the mistake of playing down to us; this material seems to be in the movie not because the Coens are pandering to the teen market but because they genuinely find it funny. Their highbrow-lowbrow balancing act was much more common among filmmakers of an earlier generation—especially Preston Sturges and, to a lesser extent, Billy Wilder, whose comedic influences ricocheted between stately European and homegrown slapstick. Most American comedies nowadays are unwaveringly thickheaded. Wit seems as out of place as fart jokes would be in Restoration farce.
Tom Hanks is Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III, Ph.D., a trickster in a creamy three-piece suit who rents a room in the Mississippi home of the southern-baptist church lady Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall) in order to rob a casino by drilling a tunnel from her root cellar. His accomplices, assembled through a newspaper want ad, are Gawain (Marlon Wayans), the inside man at the casino and a foulmouthed hip-hop joker; Garth Pancake (J. K. Simmons), a beefy demolitionist, who is introduced to us as he accidentally asphyxiates an English bulldog and attempts to give it the “kiss of life”; the General (Tzi Ma), a close-mouthed tunneling expert; and Lump (Ryan Hurst), a football player so dumb he seems sedated.
“Even at their most adolescent, the Coen brothers don’t play down to us.”
Even though the film is grounded by a gospel-rich soundtrack that includes the Soul Stirrers, as well as Pastor Donnie McClurkin, singing their versions of “Come Let Us Go Back to God,” we are securely within the borders of Coen Country. Except for Mrs. Munson, with her floral dresses and voluminous hats and gargantuan bosom, everybody is ecstatically venal. The gang’s ruse—they pretend to rehearse Renaissance church music with period instruments in the old lady’s cellar—is so preposterous that it has a kind of comic majesty. It’s a testament to the lengths men will go in order to satisfy their unquenchable greed. With his huffy, gasping laugh and nubby front teeth—a tribute to the dentures worn by Alec Guinness in the 1955 original—Dorr is a honey-dipped Master Thespian; he intones Poe to an admiring but creeped-out Mrs. Munson and likes to hear himself enunciate Latin. His best comic moment comes when he tests the acoustics in the cellar by emitting tiny, reverberant yelps. Hanks and Hall are a great combo: His rococo circumlocutions are the perfect foil for her barreling, no-nonsense presence. It’s not so much that Dorr and the others underestimate Mrs. Munson—they never really take her into account at all. When the time comes for her to be eliminated, her rectitude makes her unkillable. This tough old Bible-thumper who hates “hippity-hop music” isn’t above smiting people upside the head.
The Coens are often, and with some justification, described as heartless cynics, but sentimentality in the movies is such a cheap commodity that their acridness is practically a balm. The only sappy note in The Ladykillers is the relationship between Garth Pancake and his lady love, Mountain Girl (Diane Delano), but it must be noted that these two met at an irritable bowel syndrome singles weekend at Grossinger’s. If the Coens were more than just oddball, whip-smart entertainers, their cynicism would deepen into a darkness more profound than Mrs. Munson’s root cellar with the lights off. Inevitably, the base human condition in their movies provokes cackles, not howls. The brothers are just good enough to make you wish they took the next step—into full-throated horror. (The English Ladykillers is actually much blacker.)
And yet their most horrific film, Barton Fink, was far from their best. (For me, that would be the underrated The Big Lebowski.) It was all lows and no highs—the opposite of their last film, Intolerable Cruelty, that piece of failed fluff starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Zones, which was all highs and no lows. It’s probably a good sign that the Coens can’t steer flat-out commercial vehicles. If they could, they’d probably be making more of them and we’d be missing out on some first-class objectionable humor. The fizzy tang of disrepute is what flavors the Coens’ comedy. I’d like to see them work with Johnny Depp sometime. They could raise scurviness to an art form.