With a film title like “The Ladykillers,” a person can assume that he or she is about to watch a cheesy horror movie, but in this case viewers can be well assured that they are about to witness one of the darkest yet most delightful comedies in recent memory.
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “The Ladykillers” tells a story that takes place in Mississippi about a lonely old black widow named Marva Munson, played by Irma P. Hall.
Hall gives a lovable performance as Munson, a proud Southern woman who attends church every Sunday in her Sunday dresses, donates to local religious schools on a monthly basis and always shows her disgust for the younger generation.
In the beginning of the film, Munson walks all the way to the local sheriff’s department to complain about how the young people in her neighborhood play rap music too loud.
Immediately one can tell that Munson is a strong woman who can smell trouble miles away. Munson lives by herself in an old Victorian-style house with her cat Pickles and a portrait of her late husband watching over her from atop the fireplace.
One day a man by the name of Professor G. H. Dorr stops by her house and inquires about a spare room she has for rent. Munson rents the room to the professor, unaware of his ulterior motives.
Dorr, wonderfully acted by one of the most popular actors of the ’90s, Tom Hanks, looks more like a comic book villain with his white cape and old western style mustache than a professor with two degrees in Latin and Greek.
After the professor moves in, he begins to use the root cellar as to what he refers to as “a space for band practice.” When her back is turned, the professor gathers four men in the cellar and begins to plan a heist of a nearby boat casino.
To get to the casino the men had to dig a tunnel from the house to the boat which was permanently parked right next the harbor. While digging the tunnel from under the house, the group had to dispose of the dirt they dug up by putting it in Hefty bags and dumping it over a bridge onto a boat that carried trash to a garbage dump. Every time the group gathers for a digging session in Munson’s cellar,
What makes this film really interesting to watch is because it returns to the days of old gangster/caper type films like “The Sting,” starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman.
It was fun to see gangsters plan heists instead of the typical action movie nowadays where the hero makes snap decision with the film always ending with a car chase or a fifty men versus one shootout sequence.
Another thing that adds to the quality of the film is the fact that it is a comedy, but it is not your typical comedy with funny punch lines and quirky jokes. The film is fully character driven. Five men of different backgrounds gather to organize a heist.
Like the old gangster/caper type films of the past, each character has his own skill. Of the five main characters, one is the inside man, played by Marlon Wayans, who worked in the casino.
Another character is the demolition expert, who also happens to be a redneck; there is a lackluster football player, who acts as the group’s muscle; and another character who is a quiet oriental man who is the tunneling master. Of course I left the leader of the team, the professor played by Tom Hanks for last.
It was kind of a surprise to see Tom Hanks star in a character role, but it was fun to see Hanks return to his roots by starring in a comedy.
Hanks proves with “The Ladykillers” that he can not only still do comedies, but that he is more versatile than most people probably thought he was.
What really makes these characters so lovable was the chemistry they had with each other. It was hilarious to see Marlon Wayans get into verbal confrontations with the character of the redneck demolitionist. With the chemistry aside, each character had his own unique habits and mannerisms that made them so lovable.
The character of the below average IQ football player was always amusing to watch just to see what he would say next. Some would say that these characteristics have been done before; there is nothing new here.
That may be true in other films, but “The Ladykillers” actually made these elements funny because of they were used in the most appropriate situations.
For example, the demolitionist had irritable bowel syndrome, which always scored a laugh especially when he was stuck in a tunnel with a timer on a live bomb.
Now, there is a dark side to this comedy. Many characters die in this film and the film itself seems to poke fun of it. It is as if the film is trying to say, “look, he was trying to go upstairs but he tripped and fell and died!” But it does work in a sort of tragic, hilarious kind of way. It’s like taking the average tripping gag in a movie and taking it one step further.
After a person dies in the film body was not buried or burned, but just like the dirt being disposed the bodies were placed in Hefty bags and dumped over bridge it was dumped over a bridge onto a ship that carried trash to a garbage dump island.
All of this happens while the plans for the heist slowly begin to backfire and after Munson started to suspect there was something more than the sound of classical music coming from her cellar.
“The Ladykillers” is a very unusual movie. It’s a film that takes place in the South, and involves both a gangster heist and murders. It is a weird, but winning combination.
Finally, a good comedy comes along that brings back a lot of memories of old heist films from days gone by.
The Coen brothers are used to doing a broad range of comedy styles. They also have an impressive resume of films such as their biggest accomplishment, “Fargo.” Not only did the film win several Oscars it also was ranked on the AFI’s 100 Greatest Films of All-Time List. A list very few films made in the ’90s made it on.
Hopefully, “The Ladykillers” will start a trend of comedies that will go back to the days of trying to score laughs with quirky dialogue and lovable characters. Let us cross our fingers and hope the days of teenage sex comedies are over.
* * * 1/2
(Out of four.)