What do you get from a good Coen Brothers movie (as if there were any other kind)? Quirky characters, memorable dialogue, hilarious situations, engaging visuals? Yes, but there’s something else too — you also get a sense of comfort, a feeling that you’re in the sure hands of master storytellers and craftsmen, and that they will transport you harmlessly through two hours of cinematic pleasure. The Coen brothers can do no wrong. Their most recent film, “The Ladykillers,” is just another example of how right they can be.
“The Ladykillers” is a return to the dark humor and casual criminality of their earlier films, such as “Raising Arizona” (1987) or “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994), while also continuing the contemporary thread in their work since “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) — namely, a fascination with folk culture. The plot involves a scheming classics professor named G. H. Dorr, Ph.D. (played to the fullest by Tom Hanks) who moves into an old widow’s house with his band of thieves under the guise of being a Rococo Renaissance quintet. They burrow away in her root cellar toward the underground vault of a riverboat casino, all the while in constant danger of being discovered by the kindly woman. The elegance and mystery of the crime are just as important to Professor Dorr as the reward itself, and things start to go wrong when he gets too clever for his own good.
If the film stutters from occasional slow pacing (like a two minute POV sequence through a football helmet) and relies on stereotypical secondary characters (at times the members of Dorr’s gang felt like The Stranger from “Big Lebowski”), it redeems itself with marvelous writing. Tom Hanks delivers his eloquent lines with such a delicious smirk and with just enough educated Southern accent to give real life to the words. The honeyed phrases drip off his tongue one after another, luring the viewer onto his sweet-sounding side. Most of the pleasure in “Ladykillers” comes from watching G. H. seduce his hostess, a God-fearing woman, further and further down the wayward path. If Tom Hanks’s character is a villain then he is a Milton villain, not one from Hollywood. Like the famous French actor Jules Berry in “The Crime of Mr. Lange” (1936), Hanks manages to strike a masterful balance between words and body, creating an altogether likeable bad guy.
It’s all in the details. What one remembers most about Coen brothers movies are the specifics — how that cabbie doesn’t like the Eagles, how Barton Fink’s wallpaper peels off, how Wheezy Joe mistakes a gun for an asthma inhaler, — the wood chipper. The more details, the better (e.g. “Big Lebowski”), and the more rewarding when they come together in an intricate plot instead of just cluttering the narrative. “The Ladykillers” offers up a large addition to the Coen collection, but it never really pays off in the same satisfying way. At risk of revealing the ending, it seems the Brothers took a page from the Action Movie Handbook that reads, “When in doubt, kill somebody.” They can half get away with it because they’re so darn clever, but ultimately the story feels like it was abandoned by nearly everyone inside of it. The plot circles back nicely. People get their just desserts. But it’s just not sweet enough to rank among their best.
The Coen brothers have set such high standards for themselves that it’s awesome even when they fall short. They are perhaps the most consistently impressive and unique American filmmakers working today. So although “The Ladykillers” sparkles through some of its dullness, it doesn’t shine as much as it deserves. If only every character were as full as Professor G. H. Dorr, Ph.D. —