The Ladykillers (1955) is an enduring classic of British cinema. It was far and away Ealing's finest hour as a studio. Smooth, polished and blackly funny, its one of the best British comedies ever made. Now the classic tale gets the 21st Century makeover from Ethan and Joel Coen.
The basic story is just as Ealing left it. Five men plan a robbery while posing as musicians for the little old lady putting them up. She eventually finds the money, and the gang have no choice but to bump her off. But everything that can and will go wrong does.
Ealing comedies have always been a big influence on the Coen Brothers. Especially The Ladykillers. They love to make films where hapless folk fall victim to cruel and unusual circumstances. The Ladykillers should have worked really well in their hands. What a crushing disappointment that it doesn't. The Coens have made many marvellous films over the years. But this is one film on they're resume that misfires.
The Coens' have radically reworked the story to suit themselves. E.g. A pet cat instead of pet parrots, bodies dumped into garbage barges and not train carriages. And the Deep South as a setting. I have nothing against changes. The mark of a good remake is to take the original story and find some new novelty on it. But its the approach the Coens' take that kills the story.
Much of the appeal of the original film was the way it took place in a cosy, English domestic setting. Beneath a placid demeanour was a very sinister crime story. As violence and murder began to spiral, it pushed the film from the blackly comical into the truly hysterical.
The anonymity of the original made the violence in it that much more disturbing. And that all the more funny. But the mistake of the Coens' is to make it disturbing, but not to rein any of it in.
Coen films are frequently bizarre. But its an approach that doesn't sit very well with the story. Alec Guinness' Professor Marcus was hardly normal. You could tell that just by looking at him. But he didn't have to do much to convince you of that. One of the major problems with the remake is the way the Coens' have rewritten his character.
Professor Marcus has now become Professor G.H. Dorr, Ph.d. This was Tom Hanks' first time out with the Coen Brothers, and in interviews, he said he'd never seen the original film. If he had, I can guarantee he wouldn't have wanted to do a remake. Because the original film was perfect. The remake only reminds you of how well written and well acted the original was.
Tom Hanks' performance is more distracting than it is engaging. He plays the role with a series of peculiar squeaks, grunts and double-takes. Its impossible to form a connection with such an unusual character. Hanks draws too much attention to himself. Where Alec Guinness was more subtle. He could communicate volumes with a simple look.
The other members of the gang are not much better either. We care little for these people. And like Hanks, they're much too bizarre to identify with. Considering they're supposed to be criminals trying to keep a low profile, it just doesn't make any sense that the Coens' play up their quirks to shrieking, absurd levels.
One thing that seriously works against the film is Marlon Wayans. I must admit to an intense dislike of him as an actor. His performances are annoyingly over the top. And The Ladykillers is no exception. He spends half the time swearing his way through the film. He does more swearing than he does talking. Which feels out of step with the rest of the film. Every time he's on the scene, I wanted to leave the room. I was relieved when he was killed off. The film is all the better for it.
An otherwise fine actor like JK Simmons is wasted. He doesn't get much to do, and his irritable bowel syndrome isn't nearly as funny as the Coens' think it is. Tzi Ma and Ryan Hurst make no distinction on the story at all. They're not the smooth, attuned ensemble Guinness' gang were.
In the role of the little old lady, instead of Mrs Wilberforce, we have Mrs Munson, played by Irma P. Hall. Her sassy, energetic presence is the one ray of sunshine to the film. She's the one thing about the remake the Coens' get right. She's an amusing reversal of what we were expecting. Not too knowing. But not too naive either.
The film is slightly more successful in its second half. As soon as it gets to the point where they have to kill Mrs Munson off, it forces the Coens' to stop springing oddball quirks on us and get on with telling the story. A point where the Coens' trademark black humour finally starts paying off. They die just like the last time, with Mrs Munson completely none the wiser. But the Coens' put they're own sadistic spin on them. Tzi Ma's death is particularly hilarious.
But that's all of 30 minutes before the credits roll. And that's too late in the film to save it. And even then, we never get the feeling that things are getting worse by the second the way we did with the Ealing version. Or the way the Coens' did with Fargo. They fortunately recovered with their next film, the superb No Country For Old Men. But if that film showed the Coens' at their best, The Ladykillers is them at their worst.