Is It Just Me... Or Is The Coen Brothers' The Ladykillers underrated?

Reappraising one of the Coens' least loved films

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?

Jane Crowther

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.

Rosie Fletcher
I’ve seen pretty much everything else the Coen brothers have ever done but not this. Which is really saying something I think...

Matthew Leyland
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.

Jamie Graham
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.

Where do you stand on the Coens' The Ladykillers? Let us know below


    • davebe

      Nov 18th 2012, 12:36

      I love it. Never understood the hate other than its not the original.

      Alert a moderator

    • Hadouken76

      Nov 18th 2012, 23:58

      I got lost when the article started comparing the Coens to DJ's and hammered that simile into pate.

      Alert a moderator

    • SiMan

      Nov 19th 2012, 13:44

      Totally with you davebe - i loved this as well. "you brought your b*tch to the waffle hut!" I though Hanks was brillantly OTT in it as well, his feigned guffaws at the old lady (forgot her name) are brilliant. Okay, granted, it is by no way to be considered in a list of best Coen films, but that's more a praise of their other work than a slight of this film itself. Neither is it one of the greatest ever re-makes of all time, but that hardly means that it is a poor film and in my opinion it is harshly slated as being so.

      Alert a moderator

    • xombiemonkey

      Nov 19th 2012, 21:03

      This is definitely my least favorite Coen brothers film, but it's also a Coen brothers film, so it's not to be dismissed. I've read some very interesting interpretations of it, and justifications for why it might actually be one of their most layered, subtle works. Check out Joshua Rowin's Reverse Shot article on this film if you can. He has written the most convincing justification for The Ladykillers as good cinema that I've yet read.

      Alert a moderator

    • alexsamburschi

      Nov 20th 2012, 16:05

      it's just you.

      Alert a moderator

    • davemelges

      Nov 22nd 2012, 14:14

      How can you even COMPARE this with "Burn after reading," easily the Cohen's worst movie. Despite some brilliant characters, "Burn after reading" is junk. Personally, I put "Ladykillers" above several Cohen movies, including "No Country for Old Men," which bored me to death. In fact, most the people I've asked agreed, "No Country..." is dull. "Ladykillers" was fun. It's not something I'll watch 10 times like "Raising Arizona," and definitely not something I'll watch every year for the rest of my life like "Fargo," but it's a good companion piece to "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" in a double feature.

      Alert a moderator

    • francoisdegroen

      Aug 16th 2014, 20:25

      The character Goldthwait Higginson Dorr is my favorite Tom Hanks role. I have a lot respect for Mr. Hanks - particularly his considerable acting range. Goldthwait's persona is injected by Hanks with many memorable traits, like when Goldthwait attempts a joke and sputters and snorts when he is tickled by his own wit. I enjoy watching the film just for Goldthwaiit's character - every viewing reveals a little character tick or nuance I missed before. The entire cast gives their best, and each is equally worthy of our focus. Like the Coen Brothers' better films, the entire cast seem to have been born to play these roles. This version of Lady Killers is set in the rural American south. The brothers' attention to detail - particularly their ear for the cultural dialog of the characters resonates perfectly as an excellent American translation of the original British story(late 1950s), which is no less an excellent film. The cast of the original British Lady Killers features a pre-pink panther collaboration of Peter Sellers and Herbert Laum - two of my favorite actors immortalized by their body of work (like Robin Williams). What a contrast these great older films are from most modern remakes peddled to generate income from empty calorie cinematic junk food by money people - not artists. The original Lady Killers is set in post WW 2 England and filmed in black and white, The original is still glued together by an excellent story, cast, and crew. The Coen brothers' chops and integrity pull off a very palatable contemporary American version. Unfortunately, the absence of class in the character dialog of many remakes are not something you'd expose children to, whereas most originals had the gift of story telling without vulgarizing language, allowing viewing for all ages. On that level, the Coen brothers' Lady Killers fails like virtually every remake. In fairness, this version was not intended to include young audiences. That said, the Coen adaptation of the Lady Killers is a joy to watch, stands well on its own, and the setting is culturally distant enough from its original to have its own life without desecrating the original. The few voices who slammed Hanks for this role sound like they prefer their actors served up as formulaic junk food that taste the same every time, and reflects the intellectual laziness of elements in our culture that have been well trained by marketers to swallow mediocrity as art. I don't like every Coen Brothers film - a few are so dark I was left feeling poisoned. I'm no Pollyanna, but some of the darker ones made me sick deep down, dragging the characters to believable despair through their own greed, and only sink deeper until the closing credits are a relief from the utter darkness the film ended with. But the Coen Brothers have also made some of my favorites, like 'O Brother, where art Thou?' - the disgustingly handsome George Clooney brings his chops to a totally lovable and flawed character - Clooney totally won me over with this one. Again, an excellent cast, and a terrific story that also serves as an excellent vehicle to introduce beautiful traditional American folk, bluegrass, and blues music. The Coen Brothers' respect and honor for this very American art form shows in the skill with which they weave the music into the story - a beautiful introduction to audiences that otherwise may never have been introduced it. Absolutely no comparison to much of today's manufactured 'artists,' that vomit formulaic jingles disguised and peddled as 'music'.

      Alert a moderator