Invite movie lovers to choose the Coen brothers’ finest movie and you’ll be lucky to settle on a definitive top five.
Ask for Joel and Ethan’s worst, you’ll likely get a sigh of relief.
The Ladykillers. That’s a given, right?
Only in a near-perfect career like the Coens’ could The Ladykillers be considered the worst of anything.
Yet their 2004 comedy has quickly become the default barrel scraper, for no better reason than that it’s the easiest target.
A remake – and of a revered British classic, to boot!
How dare they Americanise Alexander Mackendrick’s evergreen Ealing farce?
How is Forrest Gump a fit substitute for national institution Alec Guinness?
And why are these indie mavericks, icons of originality, dancing to somebody else’s drum?
The Coens are no fools. The pre-emptive lowering of expectations is crucial to the delivery of possibly their most playful movie.
Precisely because it isn’t, in purist’s terms, truly Coen, their challenge is to add the unmistakable Coen tag.
The crucial exchange is arch-traditionalist Mrs Munson’s (Irma P. Hall) battle for moral decency with profane “hippity-hop” upstart Gawain (Marlon Wayans).
On one level, it satirises the pointlessness of comparing rival artforms – or original versus remake – when culture is forever in flux.
More intriguingly, that hippity-hop motif reminds us the Coens are master samplers, their career spent parodying and pastiching classic authors and genres.
If most remakes are cover versions (see Platinum Dunes, the horror equivalent of a thrash-metal tribute act) the Coens are superstar DJs, spinning old tunes to wax lyrical over.
In The Ladykillers, the Coens find a suitable groove; the original’s pitch-black grotesquerie is a prototype for their entire career.
It’s revealing how effortlessly a barely altered storyline merges with the slapstick violence of Coenville.
In sampling terms, that plot is a musical hook, yet it’s the Coens’ freestyling that sets The Ladykillers apart from lazy imitators.
It’s no coincidence that this contains some of Joel and Ethan’s most florid dialogue, a rapper’s delight of inventive MC-ing.
Ditto the characters.
Despite its best-of-a-generation cast (Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom), Guinness’ gang was a gathering of criminal archetypes.
The Coens spray-paint these pawns into a Wu-Tang Clan of distinctive weirdoes, notably J.K. Simmons’ haughty Garth Pancake and Tzi Ma’s stern Vietcong General.
While it’s fitting that a bona fide A-lister tops the bill, crucially Tom Hanks is hip to the brothers’ flamboyance, gamely subverting his everyman persona to make preening snob Goldthwait Higginson Dorr one of the Coens’ most magisterial imbeciles.
Granted, the film lacks the allegorical richness of MacKendrick’s vision of post-war Britain going nowhere fast; Joel and Ethan are content to gorge on overcooked southern- fried gothic.
But it’s the braggadocio that counts. It wouldn’t work for most, but the Coens have finely-tuned comedic flair to show off and the bassline shakes the funny bone throughout.
The cognoscenti seized upon the ultra-serious No Country For Old Men as a return to form, despite the subservience to Cormac McCarthy’s lethal prose making it arguably the Coens’ most impersonal movie yet.
But if you want to hear the brothers get wicked, it’s all about The Ladykillers’ hippity-hop skillz... Or is it just me?
VOICES OF REASON
This southern-fried jape is justly labelled as a Coen’s cock-up. Tom Hanks is woefully miscast, the tone bizarre and worst of all, Marlon Wayans is in it.
I’ve seen pretty much everything else the Coen brothers have ever done but not this. Which is really saying something I think...
Is The Ladykillers blackly funny, smartly cast, perfectly entertaining? Yes. Does it belong on any greatest remakes list? No. Which is why, by Coen standards, it has to rank as a disappointment.
Plenty of technique and some precision laughs, though it is the Coens at their most arch – which can be distancing. Certainly not their worst film – that’s Intolerable Cruelty.
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