A remake of a 1955 Alec Guinness film, The Ladykillers transfers the action from London to America's rural South. Tom Hanks takes over Guinness' role. And directing duties land in the laps of O Brother Where Art Thou? masterminds Joel and Ethan Coen.
When good Southern church-going widow Marva Munson first lays eyes on Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr III, Ph.D., she's not too sure what she's lookin' at. Besides, she's pretty distracted by the fact that her seemingly dapper—if not a bit dopey—gentleman caller just let her beloved kitty escape through the half-open door. Once the feline is safely back inside (with Dorr's generous assistance), she learns that Dorr wishes to rent a room. She agrees. He gallantly informs her that he plays ancient Renaissance music with a group of colleagues, and requests to use her root cellar for practices. She can't see any harm in that—as long as they're not playing any of that nasty "hippity-hop" music—so the deal is struck.
Marva won't find out for some time, but moviegoers quickly learn that Dorr isn't telling the truth. When the group opens up their instrument cases for their first "rehearsal," we see that alongside the rusty and abused instruments lie excavating tools. And quicker than Marva can whip up another batch of tea, her decidedly unmusical houseguests have begun tunneling into the damp clay wall of her cellar. Their objective? An underground vault used to store the money taken in by a nearby casino boat.
What follows is part black comedy, part madcap caper and part morality tale. And it's spiced up by exceedingly vibrant characters. Dorr is an eccentric professor-type obsessed with dead languages and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. He's the mastermind of the heist. Assisting him are Gawain MacSam (a trash-talking ne'er-do-well with a short fuse), Garth Pancake (a bumbling munitions enthusiast), The General (a grimly lethal excavations expert) and Lump (a decidedly dim-witted muscle-man).
Marva gets made fun of more than her fair share of the time, but she steadfastly withstands temptation, holds her church in high esteem, selflessly gives to Christian ministries and refuses to tolerate foul language or hip-hop music. [Spoiler Warning] The Ladykillers' morality-tale mindset kicks into high gear as the film nears conclusion, and wrongdoers get their comeuppance—in spades.
Thanks to executive music producer T-Bone Burnett (who also scored O Brother Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain), gospel music oozes from every nook and cranny. A church choir belts out old-time hymns and spirituals with God-honoring lyrics and salvation-minded themes. Background music does the same. Using the Old Testament story of Moses and the golden calf, a preacher spiritedly regales his parishioners with a sermon designed to teach them to knock sinners "upside the head." (Marva then takes his advice literally, and when Gawain talks crudely in her presence, she smacks him in the face for it.)
Marva's always full of spiritual-sounding catchphrases ("God bless ya," "Good Lord," "Thank the Lord"). She talks about a "hipity-hop lovin'" neighbor of hers whom she declares to be "hangin' by a thread over the fiery pit." Dorr refers to The General as a Buddhist and asks him if he has any wisdom to impart. "Must float like leaf down river of life. And kill old lady," he responds. The hat Gawain wears while threatening Garth with a gun reads, "Jesus Is My Homeboy."
Gawain is fond of letting people know he has a fetish for big behinds. The camera zooms in on one such "asset" as Gawain assails the woman with rude comments. Vulgar and obscene remarks (which include the f-word) reference pornography, severed organs and oral sex.
Gawain and a friend try to hold up a donut shop, but even though they're armed with guns, The General (who appears to own the place) thwarts their efforts by ramming his fingers up Gawain's nose and slamming his head against the counter. A woman finishes them off by throwing hot coffee at his friend. Gawain pulls a gun on Garth. Off-camera, an explosion separates Garth from one of his fingers. Marva slaps Gawain, and a flashback shows Gawain's mother doing the same. A football coach hits Lump in the face for messing up on the field.
Very little gore is shown, but several characters do end up dead. Pushing, shoving and grappling between two men lead to a gun going off and killing one of them. Another man falls down a flight of stairs and dies. Another expires when a stone statue breaks apart and hits his head. Another shoots himself in the face by accident. And two people are strangled with a thin wire.
Crude or Profane Language
Quantities of rabidly gratuitous profanity and obscenity. Nearly 100 f- and s-words are punctuated by about 20 abuses of God's name (most often it is combined with "d--n"). Women are repeatedly denigrated by being referred to as "b--ches." Gawain calls people "my n-gga."
Drug and Alcohol Content
In the root cellar, the gang drinks champagne. The General smokes incessantly. (A running gag revolves around Marva outlawing smoking in her house and The General hiding his lit cigarette inside his mouth whenever she's around.)
Other Negative Elements
Part of the film deals with a plot to kill an old woman. Gawain bribes his way back into the good graces of his boss after being fired for bad behavior. Forced to wear a human gas mask, a dog keels over and is given mouth-to-mouth. Garth suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a real-life malady played exclusively for laughs onscreen. [Spoiler Warning] It's made known that Marva regularly supports Bob Jones University by sending the organization $5 a month. So when Dorr is finally forced to tell her what he's really up to, he tries to convince her that the reason they're stealing from the casino is to support ministries like Bob Jones'.
"We really like the original movie," says Ethan Coen. "It's a strong story premise. It just has good bones. We ripped out the spine of it, kept that and threw out everything else."
Back in the '40s and '50s, when the Hays Movie Production Code was in place—and the original Ladykillers movie was produced—films were allowed to show criminal behavior only if it was done in such a way as not to make viewers sympathize. Consequences were big back then, as evil men generally reaped what they sowed. The Coen brothers' remake sticks to that ideal, and despite the film's cynically comedic underpinnings, moviegoers leave the theater thinking about what exactly the wages of sin are.
The Hays Code also barred the use of scores of profane and crude words. It's in this realm that the new incarnation of The Ladykillers goes out of control. Had it been released a half-century ago, throngs of outraged moviegoers would have literally ripped its prints from their reels to stop the ruckus. But forget decades-old social standards. Even applying modern artistic sensibilities, I'm left feeling that what I heard while I watched this otherwise masterful movie utterly destroyed its credibility, tore up every layer of its delicate nuance and scribbled haphazardly all over its colorful characterizations.