There are different ways a director can disappear from public consciousness. He can release films so infrequently that for long periods of time people forget he's alive (Terrence Malick). Or he can hide in plain sight, steadily churning out movies that betray little sign of his former genius (Woody Allen). The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan (the former directs, the latter produces, and both co-write), appear set on the latter course.
Indeed, their career is beginning to look a bit like a time-lapse version of Allen's: Whereas he produced consistently interesting and occasionally brilliant films for nearly three decades before sliding into his current metronomic mediocrity, the Coens seem to have arrived at a similar point after a compressed schedule of about a dozen years. It's seemed that the Coens were slipping since at least O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) did little to challenge this impression and Intolerable Cruelty (2003) a great deal to confirm it. With The Ladykillers, released on video last week, I think we can say it's official: The Coen brothers are in a serious rut. The Ladykillers is their worst movie to date, and by a substantial margin. Perhaps more tellingly, it's also their least ambitious, aspiring to little more than comic ordinariness and failing to achieve even that.
The Ladykillers is a (very) loose remake of the 1955 Ealing Studios comedy starring Alec Guinness. And while the original Ladykillers is not the best of the Ealing comedies (or even of those starring Guinness: Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Man in the White Suit are all funnier), the Coens' adaptation does it little justice. The rudiments of the plot persist: An eccentric professorial mastermind (this time Tom Hanks) rents a room in the home of an elderly widow. There, he and four accomplices plan and conduct a robbery while pretending, for the landlady's sake, to be practicing as a classical quintet. Eventually the old lady uncovers their crime, and they decide to get her out of the way. But this, they discover, is easier said than done.
After borrowing the premise of the original film, the Coens strike out on their own. They move the action from London to Mississippi, the better to exercise their penchant for American regional dialect (Raising Arizona, Fargo) and American regional music (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). The prim, tiny landlady, played with quiet charm by Katie Johnson, is accordingly replaced by a stout black matron played with some charm but considerably less quiet by Irma P. Hall. The crime itself is altered, too. In the original, the gang needs Johnson's person at least as much as her house: After they relieve an armored car of its cargo, she is dispatched unknowingly to pick up the "lolly." In the Coens' retelling, Hall plays no role in the crime; rather, the crooks choose her house for its root cellar, from which they tunnel into the riverside vault of a floating casino.
Like all the Coens' films, The Ladykillers is meticulously shot, with striking compositions that are occasionally a little too perfect. (Outside shots of the small-town City Hall, a square building surrounded by nothing but green grass and blue sky, suffocate on their own irony.) The gospel music featured throughout the film is terrific, even if, unlike the bluegrass of O Brother, it frequently feels forced. But The Ladykillers's aesthetic virtues do little to mask its narrative failures. One problem is the Coens' reimagining of the heist. Because Hall is not a party to the crime itself, the Coens squander perhaps the most delightful comic element of the original, in which Johnson fitfully comes to terms with her own complicity. Worse, the casino robbery and its requisite complications--the explosives that won't go off until someone is standing right next to them, the "inside man" at the casino who gets fired for harassing the female clientele--take up much more time than the simple holdup of the original. As a result, the gang doesn't decide to snuff the old lady until the final 20 minutes, rendering the film's dramatic centerpiece (and the source of its title) an afterthought.