In The Ladykillers, criminal-minded hip-hoppers (Marlon Wayans) coexist with euphonious mint-julep-sipping charlatans (Tom Hanks). In this cartoon world, they not only coexist but collaborate on a Wile E. Coyote scheme to steal money from a gambling boat on the Mississippi.
The cartoony qualities are always funny, but not always “ha ha” funny.
R for Language, including sexual references
Professor G.H. Dorr (Hanks) arrives to rent a room at the house of Miss Munson (Irma P. Hall, whose giant frame and no-nonsense attitude steals the show). Occasionally, he tells her, his ancient-instrument ensemble will practice in her root cellar. He assures her they don’t play “hippity hop music,” but fine, classical pieces — church music.
His ensemble is made of five criminal masterminds. Gawain (Marlon Wayans) is the inside man at the riverboat casino. The General (Tzi Ma) is an Asian tactician who never speaks. Garth (J.K. Simmons), with his booming baritone and irritable bowel syndrome, is the demolitions expert. Lump (Ryan Hurst) is the brainless muscle.
Digging the tunnel and stealing the money might be enough for most movies, but these five also have to deal with Miss Munson.
The characters are so broadly comic that its hard to appreciate them for very long. Once you’ve gotten the joke, there’s nowhere else to go. The same could be said for the plot. The Coens spell it out using a cartoon map and expository dialogue so obvious that it’s almost a parody. Maybe it is a parody. Maybe that’s the point. Then again, maybe it’s just a compromise for the sake of style.
The movie also falters when the third act rolls around. A new plot development (which gives the movie its title) is almost big enough to be its own movie. So just when you think things will be wrapping up, you have to shift gears into “setup” mode again for another new comedy. The Ladykillers is two stories in one, but that isn’t necessarily a bargain.
Munson Family Values
Hidden amid the wacky plot and goofy character traits is a funny, warm, human sensibility. The filmmakers love these characters. Although they are all caricatured, none of them are simply mocked. And when they have something to say, the Coens listen raptly, like they would for a beloved but crazy uncle.
Miss Munson, for example, carries on about the state of youth, “hippity hop music,” and her cat Pickles. The Coens never rush her; they set a spell and soak it in, letting the scene play out.
And although Garth’s irritable bowel syndrome is played for cheap laughs, the Coens also let him ramble earnestly about support groups and educating the public.
In the end, the fun outweighs the leaden cartoonishness of The Ladykillers, but not by a lot.