The Ladykillers is an extremely funny comedy. Or, as Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. would say it, it’s an exorbitantly capricious motion-picture presentation that has a lithe, whimsical air.
Most actors would lose even the gamest audience with a character that’s a human thesaurus with a slow-as-molasses Southern drawl. But Tom Hanks shows his decade-plus absence from unabashed comedy hasn’t thrown his timing off one bit.
He floats with mannered precision through the movie, which marks a welcome return to the vintage, weird laugh-riots that its filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, are known for. Their beautiful visuals make for several phenomenal sight gags (you’ll never see a more gorgeous or hilarious landfill). But it’s a movie that would make you laugh almost as hard with your eyes closed — a comedy of inflections, accents and excessive vocabulary.
The film opens not with Hanks, but with the slow-living details of Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), a 67-year-old Black woman in Mississippi. A widow, she lives for church and her cat Pickles, talks with a wall-mounted portrait of her late husband and takes up the sheriff’s time with complaints about “hippity-hop” music being played too loud.
Enter Dorr, as much looking for a room to rent as he is to sell snake oil to Marva, whom he double-talks into thinking he and his four oddball friends will use her root cellar to play church music. In reality, they’re common criminals, drilling through the cellar’s natural-earth wall to a nearby riverboat casino’s cash room.
The quintet is inept enough before Marva suspects something “don’t smell right” downstairs. From that point, The Ladykillers loses a bit of its true-greatness steam (even repeating a gag from the brothers’ lesser Intolerable Cruelty). But it still retains that impressively circular, only-in-a-movie-like-this logic that’s distinctly Coen.
Everything about the mood of The Ladykillers falls properly in-between. It’s modern-day, but feels like it could easily be 50 years earlier. Its literary allegories are as at home with Edgar Allan Poe as they are with the good book. Its pace hits the middle ground between languid and manic. And given its talk of moral fiber (effortlessly buried within the laughs), the gospel-heavy music feels even more integral to the film than did the roots revival of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The argument could be made that the film draws too many laughs from stereotypes. There is the profane young black man (Marlon Wayans), the mongoloid jock (Ryan Hurst), narrow-minded military man (J.K. Simmons), Vietnamese general (Tzi Ma) and even Dorr and Marva themselves.
But the Coens are able to get away with it, as they’ve done before, because they poke fun at anything and everything (including their own Jewish faith in a throwaway one-liner).
Here, they’re back working without obvious outside collaboration (as in Cruelty) or greater, arty pretense (as in O Brother). The result is easily their funniest comedy since The Big Lebowski.