The Ladykillers - saturday 2012-04-07 0344 last modified 2012-04-11 0126
Categories: Film
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A couple weeks ago it dawned on me that the only film remaining in the Coen brothers' catalog that I hadn't watched was The Ladykillers. Since O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I've managed to watch all of their releases in the theater or not long after, exception as noted. It looks like Barton Fink was the last catch up film I caught, over a year ago. I guess I then took all of the negative reviews of The Ladykillers to heart and moved on to other things.

Now I've found the reviews to be rather unfair. No, it doesn't compare to Fargo. It plays as a straight comedy, an update of a classic with some modern updated nods to higher minded racial equality, casting Tom Hanks as the loquacious southern dandy master thief and J. K. Simmons as the overly gregarious and fundamentally incompetent engineer, opposite Irma P. Hall as the simple, ignorant heroine and Marlon Wayans playing at as many black thug stereotypes as could be crammed into the script. It does seem like the Coens tend to vacillate between artistic visionaries and capitalists, until you realize that The Ladykillers is only masquerading as that comedy, playing some of those dumb laughs right as they are to distract from the fact that it's a couple of Jewish guys making a "black movie."

The Coens staked out Tyler Perry's turf for this one before he ever released a film: the old matriarch whupping on the poorly behaved "hippity-hop" youth so shoddily presenting themselves to her. Especially stacked against the high, impossible measuring stick of her departed yet ever-present husband. These are caricatures of stereotypes, a critique of the depiction of black people in film by moving into various extremes: from an overt commercialization of gospel music and Christianity to sell films - note the Coens aren't exactly churchgoers, so wrapping everything up in both Biblical metaphor and modern church worship, accurate to a fault as the depiction may be, is probably far less about getting the viewer some spiritual food for thought as it is a critique of the entire institution - to the aforementioned thuggery and exaggerated gangster language of Wayans' character ("he bought his b**** to da Waffle Hut!" - repeated ad nauseum in one scene, followed immediately by pulling a gun out of his waistband). A bit of a tempest was stirred up as viewers noted Marva Munson's dedication to Bob Jones University, an institution rather renowned for being way behind the times when it comes to race. Give the filmmakers some credit; they didn't pick a Christian university name at random. Instead, what do they have to say about blind devotion to an institution just because it nominally has something to do with Jesus? Or the blind consumption of commercial material just because it nominally has something about Jesus in it?

So while this film serves to fill in the general concept of the original on one level and presents itself as a rather oddly timed comedy that talks and kills too much on another, at its core it has a lot more to say about the particular modern genre of film that spreads its insipid views of culture far more broadly than deserved. That's a hard pill to even find, let alone swallow, when all you thought you were getting was a remake of an old Brit film.

I was going to go into the general joys of watching the Coens, but just looking over this one should be indicative of how rewarding it can be. Their "worst" still has a lot to say. And their partnership with Carter Burwell on musical composition and Roger Deakins on cinematography produced some incredible films. I look forward to what else they have to say, be it a simple and gorgeous western or a bleak world of murder and misunderstanding.

Next up, all of Akira Kurosawa's films.

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