July 15, 2004

Float like leaf on river of life. And kill old lady.

I suppose it's a sign of our bigger-louder-and-more times that Ottawa now has neither an inexpensive second-run cinema, nor, with the recent closing of the Somerset, a single-screen first-run one. We do, however, have two major repertory theatres, the ByTowne Cinema and the Mayfair Theatre. A good portion of the latter's business is in second-run films, and although it retains its original 1930s interior, it hosts a modern digital sound system. So last night I took in an encore screening of the newest film by the Coen brothers, The Ladykillers.

This movie ought to bring two previous Coen films to mind. Its dark, farcical plot about a criminal scheme gone wrong is reminiscent of Fargo, but the pervasive gospel music and setting in the deep South resembles O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Ladykillers is a remake of a 1955 British film starring Alec Guinness. The Coens have moved the setting from England to a nondescript town on the banks of the Mississippi. We meet a local widow, Mrs. Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), complaining to the town sherriff about a neighbour kid who plays loud, offensive "hippity-hop" music that uses the N-word. "Thirty years after Martin Luther King," she complains, "Sweet Lord of mercy, is that where we at?" The time, judging by the set decoration and the cars on the street could be anywhere from the mid 1980s onward.

The widow Munson is a God-fearing churchgoer with a cat named Pickles and a stern portrait of her dead husband Othar which she talks to. A running gag throughout the movie involves subtle changes in Othar's expression indicating his approval or disapproval of goings-on.

The widow Munson also has a room to rent. Enter Tom Hanks as "Professor" Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III, Ph.D. ("Like Elmer? Fudd?" asks Mrs. Munson), an effete connoisseur of antiquities. He is especially interested in Mrs. Munson's root cellar, the dirt walls of which he finds ideal for rehearsals of his Rennaissance music ensemble.

Of course, Prof. Dorr is no musician at all, and his real interest in Mrs. Munson's basement lies in the fact that its soft dirt walls provide easy underground access to the counting-house of the nearby riverboat casino. His musical "ensemble" is really his accomplices: Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), the "inside man," a trash-talking gangsta with a job at the casino; Garth Pancake (J. K. Simmons), an aging hippie with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a ladyfriend named "Mountain Girl," and knowledge of explosives; the General (Tzi Ma), a chain-smoking, ex-Viet Cong officer with expertise in tunnelling; and Lump (Ryan Hurst), a high-school football player with limited vocabulary hired for his muscles.

But while Mrs. Munson may be naïve, she isn't stupid. After the gang has a couple of unfortunate basement accidents with explosives (which even the Professor's grandiloquent sweet-talking can't explain away), she discovers the plot and demands that the Professor return the money and go to church with her. Faced with the horrendous prospect of "engaging in divine worship," however, his course is clear: Eliminate the widow. And suddenly this turns into a Coen brothers movie.

Frankly, I don't understand why The Ladykillers has received so much negative criticism. I know it is a remake (which I have yet to see) and therefore is outside of the Coen brothers' regular territory, besides having some big shoes to fill. But even on a second showing, many scenes are downright laugh-out-loud. While much of the acting is over-the-top, it is a farce, after all. Clearly Hanks is having a grand old time hamming up the part of the pretentious Professor, sporting a beard and an outfit that make him look like a malevolent Colonel Sanders. He also wears bad prosthetic teeth and affects a giggle that reminds me of - I kid you not - Joan Cusack. The best portrayal is that of the widow Munson. Hall plays her as a simple but strong-willed woman, naïve of the ways of the world but with a well-grounded sense of right and wrong. The script pokes gentle fun at her simplicity without going all out and mocking her faith: for example, she gives five dollars a month to Bob Jones University, which she regards as the finest institute of higher learning in the world, seemingly unaware of its infamous racial policies. On the other hand, when she slaps Gawain repeatedly for using profanity in her "Christian house," any honest viewer will inwardly cheer her on.

This isn't to say that it's all perfect. Wayans' foul mouth goes too long and too far. And while IBS is Pancake's fatal flaw, it seems to act more as an excuse for fart jokes than a serious plot point.

The music in The Ladykillers is excellent. The Coens apparently hope that this film will do for traditional gospel what O Brother, Where Art Thou? did for traditional bluegrass, and again hired the talents of T-Bone Burnett to co-ordinate the music. Unfortunately it doesn't work as well as in the previous film, where the music was woven right into the plot. Here it functions to set mood and as an occasional set piece (tell me that isn't Eddie Murphy in disguise as the church choir director). The movie opens with a long shot of a garbage barge floating under a bridge and up the Mississippi to an island of garbage, over which plays Thomas Dorsey's "Come, Let Us Go Back to God." This functions ironically as a sort of leitmotif every time the gang uses the barge to dispose of evidence.

The theme of The Ladykillers, is simple: "ye have sinned against the Lord: and be sure your sin will find you out" (Numbers 32:23). There is a moral order to the universe. Once the decision is made to kill Mrs. Munson, the plot speedily moves to its conclusion as the conspirators all receive their comeuppance under increasingly fortuitous circumstances.

Compared to other Coen films, The Ladykillers rates considerably lower than Fargo and O Brother, but well above The Big Lebowski.