I haven’t seen all of the Coen Brothers’ movies by any means, but now with The Ladykillers I have seen 10 of what a check of IMDB indicates is a total of 17 full-length films that one or both of them is credited with directing. (They’ve filled other roles in other movies, but I guess directing is as good a measure as any as to what counts as a “Coen Brothers Movie.”)
I’m in the habit of identifying myself as a big fan of theirs, but that’s sort of true and sort of false. For my tastes, the films of theirs that I’ve seen vary wildly. They have higher highs than just about any filmmaker, but their overall average isn’t all that great.
I tend to have high expectations for their films, maybe because it just seems surprising that people could make films that are extraordinarily good where everything comes together so well (again, this is just for me, subjectively), and yet have also made a lot more films that not only aren’t that good, but aren’t remotely close to that good.
It’s like a ballplayer with two or three phenomenal seasons where he hit close to .400, a few where he hit like a decent starter but nothing special, and some even below that.
To be more specific, here’s a quick summary of where I’d rank the Coen Brothers’ movies I’ve seen:
Among my favorite movies of all time, possibly top ten: Fargo, The Big Lebowski. [Off the top of my head, I doubt any other filmmaker would have multiple films in or near my all-time top ten. That’s the single biggest reason I think of myself as a big fan of theirs.]
A little below that, but still an intriguing film I liked a lot that stayed with me long after seeing it. Not top ten, but certainly top fifty and maybe higher: No Country for Old Men.
Just middling. Interesting, a few decent laughs (if it’s a comedy), worthy of a modest thumbs up at best. Mostly didn’t stay with me; surprising how little I remembered of it even a short time after watching it: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man. [Roughly in order from the one I liked the most to the one I liked the least, though they’re so close that on another day I might rank them differently.]
Didn’t do much for me. Didn’t hate it, but not a film I’d recommend: Miller’s Crossing.
Unwatchable. Literally—a few minutes into it I turned it off because it was so stupid, which I do less than 1% of the time with movies: The Hudsucker Proxy.
So, by the process of elimination, that means that the movies of theirs that I haven’t seen (yet, at the time I write this) are: Blood Simple, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, True Grit, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Hail, Caesar!
To eliminate the suspense early, I’ll state up front where I’d rank The Ladykillers relative to these other films. It’s a movie that grew on me as it went along. For a while it was looking like it would barely make it into that “middling” category (borderline if it deserves a thumbs up or thumbs down, but certainly no better than a modest thumbs up). In the end, though, I’m inclined to put it at or near the top of the “middling” category. So it’s somewhere around my fourth or fifth favorite of the ten movies by the Coen Brothers that I’ve now seen.
Tom Hanks plays Professor G.H. Dorr, the leader of a makeshift criminal gang. Done up like Colonel Sanders, he is a Southern gentleman intellectual, prone to quoting poetry, making learned references, offering grandiloquent flattery, and laughing in a peculiar, sniffling way. His intended caper is to tunnel into a casino at night when it is closed and steal the money from its counting room.
The gang he has assembled consists of Lump Hudson, a really dumb guy who is to be entrusted only with tasks that require nothing more than brute strength; Garth Pancake (played by the reliably funny J.K. Simmons), a munitions expert in the tradition of Don Knotts’s K.B. (Ka-Boom!) Morrison; Gawain MacSam, the jive-talking, black “inside man” with a janitor job at the casino; and “The General,” a taciturn little older Vietnamese man who is one of those martial arts experts who can presumably kill you in a few dozen different ways with his bare hands.
As a base of operations from which to dig to the casino, the Professor rents a room from an old black lady, and brings the other four in as regular guests, whom he takes down the basement to allegedly practice their classical music together. They then play classical music on a boombox to cover the noise they make digging to the casino.
The Ladykillers is one of those comedies that makes no pretense to being even minimally realistic. To say it requires you to suspend disbelief is an understatement. Among the many things you need to ignore:
- They rent a room in a house where the owner lives and rarely leaves, rather than buying or renting a place where they can work without such fear of discovery.
- The owner checks the basement periodically—a few seconds after a perfunctory knock—and even if the gang had been deep into the tunnel they somehow always have time to reassemble and form a circle with their instruments as if they had been practicing all along.
- Digging an enormous tunnel from the basement makes so little noise that it can be covered by the music they play on the boombox.
- The Professor notes that they are screwed if the owner ever figures out what’s going on, because she has all their real names. (Why? Even if he wasn’t able to come up with fake I.D. as the renter, why in the world would he have revealed the true identities of the other four?)
- The casino apparently has no indoor security whatsoever during the hours it’s closed—no cameras, alarms, or even a lowly night watchman—so if you can somehow get inside undetected you’re home free.
- The Professor assembled this gang by posting an ad.
So, yeah, it’s a farce, and you just have to accept its silliness and implausibility, like if you were watching a Marx Brothers movie or Monty Python skit.
Like I say, the film grew on me. Early on I was more bothered by the fact that so many elements didn’t make sense, but as it developed I got more into the goofy situations and over-the-top acting. The comedic dialogue is never as priceless as that of The Big Lebowski certainly, but there are high points where you can tell it comes from the same wonderful, inventive minds.
I ended up liking the characters and getting some good laughs out of The Ladykillers. It’s nothing deep, nothing great, but it’s good fun.