Crude Coens

Culture | Culture

Issue: "Iraq: Liberation Day 2004," April 10, 2004

The Coen Brothers can be an acquired taste. Their quirky, bizarre humor and their flamboyant visual style are certainly not very mainstream. Their movies are populated with weird characters who don't easily engender audience empathy, but are nonetheless unforgettable. All of this can lead to some off-putting (some might say gross) moments on screen, but despite that, there's also usually an undergirding morality to their work. Crime may be a lot of fun in a Coen Brothers film (at least for the audience), but it rarely pays.

This is certainly true of their latest, The Ladykillers (rated R for bad language including sexual references), an oddball comedy loosely remaking a 1955 Alec Guinness classic. A gang of mismatched crooks moves into an elderly woman's house in order to commit a daring crime -- tunneling into the vault of a nearby riverboat casino. The colorful group is led by Professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks, employing a hilariously labored Southern drawl) and includes some amusingly one-dimensional supporting players. They find that the biggest challenge they face is not casino security, but the elderly black widow (Irma P. Hall) whose house they've invaded.

The Ladykillers is filled with classic Coen characters, some typically clever cinematography, and several great lines of dialogue. However, the film also contains something not typically associated with the Coen Brothers: an appalling, unending stream of profanity. The language in the film is utterly foul, and is particularly grating when paired with the fantastic gospel music soundtrack (assembled by T. Bone Burnett). The impact of the Coens' best jokes is lost because they're layered under so much profanity. The Coens, who write their own scripts and are masters of dialogue, probably meant this to be part of the joke, but that doesn't make the language any easier to take.

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The Coens love to present a seeming simpleton, naive to the ways of the world, and give him or her a degree of integrity and common sense that foils the cleverest of evildoers -- Ms. Hall's Marva admirably extends this tradition. Her interplay with Mr. Hanks, whose speech is full of what Marva impatiently calls "double talk," is the highlight of the film -- and, incidentally, never includes profanity. These bright spots aren't enough to make up for the offensiveness of the rest of the movie, however, making The Ladykillers a minor and disappointing entry in the Coen Brothers' otherwise impressive canon.


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