Film: The Land of Contempt

Hope springs eternal in the human breast, except when you’re a critic. Sooner or later, there comes a time when you finally decide to give up on artists who’ve disappointed you repeatedly. I stopped bothering with Woody Allen, for instance, after Sweet and Lowdown (the only reason I went to see that one was because it was about a Django Reinhardt—like jazz musician), and now there is no possible circumstance not involving the exchange of large sums of money that could induce me to go see a new movie by him. I don’t care what other critics say, or even what my moviegoing friends say: I just don’t care anymore. Yes, I know it’s well within the realm of theological possibility that Allen might someday be touched by grace and make a good movie, but if God doesn’t have better things to do, then I’ve got bigger things to worry about.

I made a similar decision about Joel and Ethan Coen after the most recent of their films that I reviewed for CRISIS, O Brother, Where Art Thou? I’d liked some of their early work very much, Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing in particular, but as the outlines of their style and the narrow limitations of their interests became clearer over time, I realized that intermittent interest had turned to active dislike. The older I get, the more acutely aware I become of the passing of time, and the less of it I want to waste on experiencing works of art that irritate me. After O Brother, the thought of letting the Coen brothers hustle me two hours nearer to the grave with yet another of their arch films-about-film was simply too depressing to contemplate, so I skipped The Man Who Wasn’t There and Intolerable Cruelty and felt quite pleased with myself for having done so.

Then I saw the trailer for The Ladykillers, their remake of one of those wonderful Ealing Studios comedies of the Fifties, with Tom Hanks playing the Alec Guinness part, and found my resolve wavering. Surrounded as I was by the variously awful films released in the churning wake of The Passion of the Christ, I decided that rather than subject you to my thoughts on, say, Dawn of the Dead or Jersey Girl, it might be worth giving the Coens one more try. After all, how bad could it be? So I went, spent the next 104 minutes squirming in exasperation, and left the theater muttering, “Never, ever again?’

To start with, put the sublime 1955 version of The Ladykillers out of your mind, since this vampiristic remake shares the older film’s plot but jettisons its point of view. For those who haven’t seen the original, do so, but until then, here’s a quick synopsis of what the Coens hath wrought: Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks), a palpably phony classics professor and Renaissance-music buff who is actually a crook, rents a room from Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), a thick-witted widow lady in a small southern town, in order to use her root cellar to burrow into the basement of a nearby casino and rob it. (Spoiler alert!) Assisted by a motley crew of half-and quarter-wits, Dorr cops the loot, but Munson discovers his scheme and threatens to turn in him and his gang if they don’t agree to give back all the money and (worse yet) go to church with her next Sunday. The only alternative is to bump her off, so they draw straws to see who’ll do the job, and one by one are accidentally killed in the process.

What’s wrong with this picture? Tom Hanks, for openers. It’s not that he can’t play a comic heavy—he was actually quite effective as the slightly bent record promoter in his own That Thing You Do!—but he lacks the flamboyant gusto necessary to enliven Goldthwait Dorr, who is made of fraudulence all compact. Professor Dorr is first and foremost a cracked conman who talks in ornate curlicues, revels in reciting Edgar Allan Poe at the drop of a hat, and thinks nothing of bumping off old ladies who have the misfortune to stand between him and his ill-gotten gains. I almost hate to bring up Alec Guinness, since comparisons between a likable movie star and one of the greatest classical actors of the 20th century are by definition unfair, but his contribution to the original Ladykillers was at once funny and black to a degree suggesting demonic possession. As reimagined by the Coens, Professor Dorr is a one-dimensional spoof, though a different performer (W. C. Fields, say) might at least have made him a whole lot more amusing. Instead, Hanks spends the whole film muttering into his beard, and no sparks fly.

In the end, though, who’s really to blame? Almost certainly the Coens, since they jointly wrote and directed The Ladykillers and its once-over-lightliness is all of a piece with the rest of their work. Not for them the sort of authentically black comedy animated by a genuine awareness of the existence of evil. “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading,” wrote Logan Pearsall Smith in Trivia. So, too, the Coen brothers: All they know is the movies they’ve seen, out of which they stitch together their epiphenomenal remembrances of films past. When it comes to reproducing surfaces, nobody does it better—The Ladykillers is beautifully exact in its only slightly exaggerated picturing of the externals of small-town life—but no sooner do actual human beings stroll into the picture than you can hear their self-satisfied makers tittering in the distance.

This is especially true of Marva Munson, a Big Old Black Lady come to rip-roaring life, contentedly waving her funeral-home fan in church and firmly instructing her new tenant not to play “that hippety-hop music” on his boom box. Yes, Irma P. Hall brings to her fine performance all the confidence and force that Hanks fails to muster, and for a reel or two you chuckle intermittently at her impenetrable density, but before long the laughter is replaced by puzzlement. What’s so funny about so grotesque and contemptuous a caricature? Just who do the Coens think they’re kidding? Big old black ladies? Small-town southerners? Christians? The human race?

It’s revealing, I’m sure, that The Ladykillers, like O Brother, Where Art Thou? before it, makes extensive use of gospel music for parodistic purposes. Once again, the music itself is terrific, but the uses to which it is put are both ironic and quintessentially postmodern: We are clearly supposed to be amused by all those benighted believers rocking joyously in their pews, even though Dey Got Rhythm and we sorry white folk don’t. That’s how postmodernism works—it plays both sides of the street, winking in either direction. That’s how The Ladykillers works, too, and that’s why it’s the last “comedy” by Joel and Ethan Coen I ever plan to see. Whatever else nihilism is, it isn’t even slightly funny.

  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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