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Thursday, May 06, 2004

 

In defense of The Ladykillers

OK, really, what's the problem? Quotable dialog? Check. Vivid, surreal imagery? Check. Mean-spirited stereotypes? Check. So, really, why is The Ladykillers now considered the Coen Brother's worst movie?

There's a simple formula for their filmography: choose a American locale and ridicule it. The Brothers have gone after just about every region in the US: the Midwest (Fargo), California (The Big Lebowski), the east coast (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty, etc.). They already conquered the south in Oh Brother Where Art Thou and others so the cliches employed in The Ladykillers, which takes place in Mississippi, shouldn't be a problem. This is just another film in a long line that employs archetypes for comedic effect.

Yet, for so many critics, it was a problem. The Brothers' films are almost always universally praised but this one received tepid, in many cases, outright hostile reivews. The cast is comprised of the duos usual brand oddball stereotypes. Like so many of their other characters, Tom Hanks' Professor G.H. Dorr is a stereotype. He's a smooth talking southern gentlemen. Much like the Dude, who, at first glimpse, was a lame hippie archetype, Door is overloaded with unusual quirks. While he's a cliche, he's a cliche that just so happens to be a riverboat casino robber with an unhealthy passion for Edgar Allen Poe and white suits.

Hanks' colleagues-in-arms include a demolitions expert with irritable bowel syndrome, a chain-smoking Vietcong general and a gangsta' janitor with wandering eyes...and that's where I think most viewers hit a wall with this movie. If The Ladykillers was set, like the original, in England with an entirely white cast, it would have opened to rave reviews. Because the Coens inside moved to the south and filled a good portion of the script with African American archetypes it fell flat with both audiences and critics.

Now I'm not going near a discussion of race in cinema (fine, too late) but I think it's safe to say The Ladykillers was the victim of an unfair double standard. When the Coens employ every weapon at their disposal to mercilessly ridicule yokels living in Minnesota, they're rewarded with a huge box office take and Oscar noms. Vietnam vets, hippies, Italian mobsters, bikers, drooling hicks, Hispanic child molesters, middle-eastern dictators and German nihilists are all safe ground but the second they set their sights on an elderly black grandmother, all bets are off.

At the very least, The Ladykillers is an equal opportunity offender. I may be forgetting a few but the film also goes after southern whites, the mentally challenged, Asians and (gasp!) the Swiss. The movie is a melting pot comedy and the racially diverse crowd I saw it with laughed, in the words The Stranger, "to beat the band." So, really, what's the problem? The Ladykillers is not the Coens' best movie but it's still a million times better than their toothless Introlerable Cruelty. And Pickles the cat kicked ass.

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