Something always smelled fishy about the Coens’ ’04 remake of The Ladykillers, the ’55 Ealing comedy directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Alec Guinness that is, depending on your taste, marvelous or, at the very least, mildly delightful.
It’s the one Coen brothers movie I didn’t see in a theater within a week of its opening. Now I know why. I knew why within five minutes of watching it last week. The first scene plays like a sad, flopping fish gasping for air in the bottom of a boat, slowly dying. The rest of the movie plays like a dead fish.
Even at a conceptual level, it’s a dead fish. Usually in a bad movies it’s at least evident what the filmmakers were going for. A bad joke is still a joke. A boring car chase is still a car chase. You understand the intent. I have no idea what the Coens were going for in The Ladykillers. Why remake it in the first place? Why update it to the American south? Why is the old lady a black church-going gospel fan who hates rap music? Why is Tom Hanks wearing weird false teeth?
Tom Hanks is given an endless stream of circuitous, high-falutin’ dialogue he delivers with panache, and every bit of it is flat, unfunny, and irritating. Not a single joke lands in The Ladykillers. Not a single character pops. Hanks’ compatriots are bizarre, one-note non-jokes, each introduced in scenes from other, even worse movies.
You’re forced to wonder: have the Coens never seen a heist movie? It’s one thing—a good thing—to play around with genre tropes, but you have to know the tropes, and you have to play with them on purpose. In The Ladykillers, we don’t see how the team is assembled. They just turn up together because, we’re told, of an ad in a newspaper. Hm, okay. They go over the plan—and it’s just a simple map with a few boxes drawn on it. We are here, the money is here, we dig a tunnel, we get it. That’s the plan. That’s fine if the robbery isn’t the focus of the movie. And here, it isn’t. But what is the focus? Nothing. There is no focus. The fish is dead.
The robbery goes smoothly, except when one character, Garth (the single worst use of J.K. Simmons in the history of cinema, whose character is introduced murdering a dog(?!)), announces his irritable bowel syndrome is acting up and has to take a shit. A joke? I think? He has to run to the bathroom, so, okay, bathroom, shit, that’s comedy. Also he talks about his IBS a bunch, annoying hip black youth, Gawain (Marlon Mayans).
Despite the crooks’ brilliant plan, they’re too dumb to keep the door to their basement locked, and the old lady, Marva (Irma P. Hall), discovers their misdeeds. So they have to kill her. But they all die instead. Because they’re so stupid. She reaps their ill-gotten money, but she gives it all away to Bob Jones University, which though a religious institution is famously, outrageously racist. Ha ha…ha…
Ha? The Coens keep poking their dead fish with sharp sticks, but it ain’t moving, is it? No. It’s bleeding and full of holes and stinkin’ up the joint.
There’s a scene in a gospel church where a gospel song is sung. The whole song. Like in The Blues Brothers, but without either James Brown or any reason whatsoever for being in the movie. It serves no story purpose. Is it thematic? Is this movie about the power of belief? And how you should praise god and hate on rap? It most surely is not. It’s about a man with a mysterious southern drawl in a Colonel Sanders costume failing to do anything intelligent.
Which is a common theme for the Coens, especially in their comedies. Dumb people thwarted by their idiocy. In their best comedy, Raising Arizona, it works because you care deeply about the characters. In a far lesser comedy like Burn After Reading, it works because the characters, despite lacking emotional depth, and despite being idiots, come off as plausible (enough) humans. Or, to put it more simply, they’re funny.
In The Ladykillers, the characters have no depth, no meaning, might as well be aliens dropped from outer space for all their connection to humans as we know them, and, worst of all, nothing they do is funny. Never have the Coens tried harder to be funnier, and never have they made a less funny movie. It’s like Carrot Top and Gallagher teamed up for an all-prop re-enactment of a Don Rickles routine.
When I recently wrote up a worst-to-best list of the Coens output, I noted how even their worst movies are worth watching. I had not yet seen The Ladykillers. I’m not so sure I should have watched it. It was a sad experience, watching this fish die. Maybe it’s worth knowing first-hand that everyone has at least one dud in them. But maybe not. If you’re ever wondering which Coen brothers movie not to watch, I can’t recommend The Ladykillers highly enough.