Diminishing Returns

by Christopher Orr | September 14, 2004

There are different ways a director can disappear from public consciousness. He can release films so infrequently that for long periods of time people forget he's alive (Terence Malick). Or he can hide in plain sight, steadily churning out movies that betray little sign of his former genius (Woody Allen). The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan (the former directs, the latter produces, and both co-write), appear set on the latter course.

Indeed, their career is beginning to look a bit like a time-lapse version of Allen's: Whereas he produced consistently interesting and occasionally brilliant films for nearly three decades before sliding into his current metronomic mediocrity, the Coens seem to have arrived at a similar point after a compressed schedule of about a dozen years. It's seemed that the Coens were slipping since at least O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) did little to challenge this impression and Intolerable Cruelty (2003) a great deal to confirm it. With The Ladykillers, released on video last week, I think we can say it's official: The Coen brothers are in a serious rut. The Ladykillers is their worst movie to date, and by a substantial margin. Perhaps more tellingly, it's also their least ambitious, aspiring to little more than comic ordinariness and failing to achieve even that.

The Ladykillers is a (very) loose remake of the 1955 Ealing Studios comedy starring Alec Guinness. And while the original Ladykillers is not the best of the Ealing comedies (or even of those starring Guinness: Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Man in the White Suit are all funnier), the Coens' adaptation does it little justice. The rudiments of the plot persist: An eccentric professorial mastermind (this time Tom Hanks) rents a room in the home of an elderly widow. There, he and four accomplices plan and conduct a robbery while pretending, for the landlady's sake, to be practicing as a classical quintet. Eventually the old lady uncovers their crime, and they decide to get her out of the way. But this, they discover, is easier said than done.

After borrowing the premise of the original film, the Coens strike out on their own. They move the action from London to Mississippi, the better to exercise their penchant for American regional dialect (Raising Arizona, Fargo) and American regional music (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). The prim, tiny landlady, played with quiet charm by Katie Johnson, is accordingly replaced by a stout black matron played with some charm but considerably less quiet by Irma P. Hall. The crime itself is altered, too. In the original, the gang needs Johnson's person at least as much as her house: After they relieve an armored car of its cargo, she is dispatched unknowingly to pick up the "lolly." In the Coens' retelling, Hall plays no role in the crime; rather, the crooks choose her house for its root cellar, from which they tunnel into the riverside vault of a floating casino.

Like all the Coens' films, The Ladykillers is meticulously shot, with striking compositions that are occasionally a little too perfect. (Outside shots of the small-town City Hall, a square building surrounded by nothing but green grass and blue sky, suffocate on their own irony.) The gospel music featured throughout the film is terrific, even if, unlike the bluegrass of O Brother, it frequently feels forced. But The Ladykillers's aesthetic virtues do little to mask its narrative failures. One problem is the Coens' reimagining of the heist. Because Hall is not a party to the crime itself, the Coens squander perhaps the most delightful comic element of the original, in which Johnson fitfully comes to terms with her own complicity. Worse, the casino robbery and its requisite complications--the explosives that won't go off until someone is standing right next to them, the "inside man" at the casino who gets fired for harassing the female clientele--take up much more time than the simple holdup of the original. As a result, the gang doesn't decide to snuff the old lady until the final 20 minutes, rendering the film's dramatic centerpiece (and the source of its title) an afterthought.

But the crucial difference between the two versions of The Ladykillers is less one of plot than of exertion. The original was a study in comic understatement, content to elicit frequent smiles and the occasional chuckle. Though he scarcely has a memorable line or scene, Guinness's professor, with his Lon Chaney teeth and skulking manner, makes an indelibly creepy impression. In the Coens' version, by contrast, it's all about the Big Laugh, a grail for which the film persistently strives in vain. The dizzying diction and explosive chortles of Hanks's character are intermittently amusing but consistently cartoonish. And everything else in the film has been made, like Hall's character, bigger and louder. The dumb muscle gangmember has been made dumber and musclier and answers to the name "Lump"; the prickly American gangster has become a considerably pricklier gangsta. The humor is by far the coarsest the Coens have yet attempted, as if they briefly forgot which moviemaking brothers they were: Channeling the Farrellys, they spend a good ten minutes on diarrhea jokes simultaneously too crude and too timid; mistaking themselves for the Wayanses, they imagine that if the gangsta character (played by actual Wayans brother Marlon) repeats the line "You brought your bitch to the Waffle Hut?" enough times (four, to be exact), it will eventually become funny. (It doesn't.) The mountain of low-aiming humor is topped off with a device so childish I thought at first I must be imagining it: a portrait of Hall's late husband, Othar, that changes expressions (stern disapproval, wide-eyed shock) depending on what's taking place under his roof. Just about the only thing missing from the cavalcade of lame jokes was a talking dog voiced by some recognizably gruff movie star.

What has happened to the Coens? They are making movies at a faster clip (five in the last six years, compared with six in the previous twelve) and are attracting bigger stars (Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones) than ever before. But since their critical breakthrough with Fargo (1996), they seem to have lost their vision and their nerve. The telltale signs of their auteurship are still there--the comic regionalism, the genre pastiche, the arresting (if sometimes sterile) cinematography--but increasingly these elements feel like gimmicks in search of a movie. There was a time when you looked forward to a new Coen brothers movie. When Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers hit theaters, however, many people were only dimly aware that they even were Coen brothers movies. Which, in the end, might be a good thing for the Coens' reputation.

Special Home Movies List:
The (D)evolution of the Coen Brothers


Blood Simple (1984). An intricate mechanism of lethal misunderstandings, and one of the most successful American indies made before Pulp Fiction exploded the mainstream barrier. M. Emmet Walsh and Dan Hedaya (of course) contend for top sleazeball honors.

Raising Arizona (1987). For those attuned to its wavelength, perhaps the funniest movie of the 1980s, a weird and fiercely original blend of absurdist dialogue, kinetic camerawork, and yodeling. (For those not so attuned: I'm sorry.)

Miller's Crossing (1990). The Coens' best picture. (Sorry, Fargo.) A meta-gangster flick loosely based on two Dashiell Hammet stories, with a healthy dose of All the King's Men thrown in. (Miller's Crossing=Burden's Landing?) The cinematography (by Barry Sonnenfeld in his last collaboration with the Coens) and score are both extraordinary, and Gabriel Byrne will never look or sound better.

Barton Fink (1991). The Coens' first flop, a sour anti-valentine to some English teacher who once made them read Faulkner and Odets. (Cannes, of course, awarded it the Palme D'Or.) Only John Goodman as a smiling maniac and Michael Lerner as a studio big shot (potayto, potahto) manage not to choke on the movie's closed, stagnant air.

Hudsucker Proxy (1994). A lovely cinematic set piece surrounded by a half-hearted stab at a movie. Fast forward to the one hour and five minutes mark; watch the next two and a half minutes; eject.

Fargo (1996). After two misses, the Coens rebounded with what remains their most mature picture, netting Frances McDormand (Joel's wife) an Oscar and introducing the wide world to the hangdog wonders of William H. Macy.

The Big Lebowski (1998). A Dada mess of a movie, but enjoyable nonetheless. John Turturro has a hilariously creepy cameo as a bowler named Jesus, Goodman is again terrific for the Coens as a Vietnam vet with anger management issues, and Sam Elliot inexplicably shows up to offer cowboy commentary. Little wonder the center cannot hold, and Jeff Bridges's stoner protagonist leaves scant impression.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). A soundtrack masquerading as a motion picture. Clooney shows a reasonable aptitude for screwball, and Tim Blake Nelson plays a wonderfully touching dimwit. But neither they nor anyone else in the film has enough to do when the music stops.

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). Less than the sum of its parts, which is a pity since some of those parts are quite good. Billy Bob Thornton is well-cast as the affectless protagonist, and Tony Shalhoub is delightful as a fast-talking defense attorney. (Watch for the scene in which he seems to parody the dull, self-important play Copenhagen.) The black and white cinematography, too, is gorgeous.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003). What might have been a witty battle-of-the-sexes throwback instead comes across as tossed off and underdeveloped. Clooney is surprisingly funny, again skewering his own vanity (this time with capped teeth rather than pomade), but the Coens apparently forgot to write a part for co-star Zeta-Jones.

The Ladykillers (2004). The reputation-killer.

Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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