Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) lives and prays in the Baptist Bible Belt. She reveres her dead husband, whose portrait looms from over the fireplace, and she will suffer neither fools nor “that hippity hop music”: “Do you know what they call colored folks in them songs?” she harrumphs for Sheriff Wyner (George Wallace). “Niggers: I won’t say it twice. Two thousand years after Jesus, 30 years after Martin. In the age of Montel.”
Pious, earnest, and broadly drawn, Marva is the first black character in a Coen brothers movie to occupy center stage. For a minute, anyway, until her doorway is darkened by Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, III (Tom Hanks). Doffing his white hat and sweeping aside his white cape, Dorr smiles, presuming his intellect will overwhelm this sweet old lady. When she insists that she only means to let her extra room to a “quiet man,” he reassures her, sort of, “Madame, you are addressing a man who is quiet, and yet, not quiet, if I may offer a riddle.” Twitchy and sly, Professor Dorr is given to spasms of self-satisfied laughter and flights of poetry, in particular, by Edgar Allen Poe (a favorite being “To Helen,” wherein the Professor adopts the yearning, melodramatic pose of “The weary, wayworn wanderer,” endeavoring to impress his hostess with his bookishness).
Based on the 1955 Ealing Studios movie of the same name, The Ladykillers sets up a contest between earthly cunning and spirited faith, where the loser has no idea that he’s losing, even as it’s happening. At first, The Ladykillers looks to be the sort of antic, violent comedy for which the Coens are renowned, even beloved. Dorr’s scheme is outwardly straightforward: he tells Marva that his decidedly odd crew is a Renaissance music ensemble in need of rehearsal space. Her root cellar, he exults, is “more than perfect.” In truth, the crew (assembled by means of a “Help Wanted” ad in the local paper, plans to rob the collection room of a riverboat gambling establishment by tunneling from the cellar to what Dorr terms “repositories of free lucre.”
Each team member is assigned a specific task, and each is potentially offensive in his own way, especially with regard to their decorous landlady. Casino maintenance worker Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans) can’t stop himself from cursing in her Christian home; the General (Tzi Ma) chain-smokes; demolitions expert Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) tends to bluster and set off explosions inadvertently; and the tunnel-digging muscle, Lump (Ryan Hurst) sweats and grunts, unable to put sentences together. (An erstwhile football player, Lump’s dismissal from his last team is revealed in spastic flashback, shot from inside the kid’s helmet as he’s conked in the head: thunk.)
Predictably, these assorted wannabes fight among themselves, jockeying for positions and shares. Alone among the “merry band of brothers,” Pancake has a sweetheart, Mountain Girl (the resourceful Diane Delano, who deserves better than this one-note role). Pancake reports that they met at a weekend seminar for Irritable Bowel Syndrome sufferers, a plot point that introduces a series of farty, uncontrollable body gags (when Pancake refers to his condition as “IBS,” Gawain is befuddled: “You be what?”). While The Ladykillers is at least partly about immoderation and self-interest, this bit of metaphor is, in a word, unoriginal.
It’s hard to say who is the most flamboyant, though Dorr, being the group’s pompous, self-selected spokesman, has most opportunity to exhibit his preposterous mannerisms. Of the many self-involved individuals who populate Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies, Dorr ranks among the most precious and least sympathetic. This has to do with Hanks’ mustering of a notably obnoxious affect, as well as Dorr’s opposition to Marva, who remains indomitable and sensible even as Dorr presumes his own superiority.
Much as Dorr tries to limit the interactions between Marva and the men, a curiously complex relationship develops between Marva and Gawain. This despite the film’s concerted efforts to reduce it to slapstick, as in the currently rotating promotional clip, when Marva slaps Gawain silly for using foul language in her Christian home. Again, it’s a simple gag, premised on stereotypes, without challenge. “Youth ain’t no excuse for nothing,” she asserts, even as Gawain begins to lose hold of his rebellious pose, seeing in her a version of his own mama. For the other men, he points out, Marva is just another gullible black lady, but to him, she represents culture, history, and personal guilt all at once.
The Ladykillers, as Tom Hanks has pointed out in more than one recent interview, needs a formidable woman to counter the would-be “killers.” Marva provides appropriate resistance, even as she has to spend so much of the film off-screen, to allow the men to go on about their hijinks. Astute in her way (“I know mischief when I see it,” she warns the sniveling Dorr), she also sees what she needs to see in order to make sense of the chaos around her. Marva’s fist appearance in the film, back at Sheriff Wyner’s office, lays out her worldview, which is less correct than it is convincing.
By contrast, Dorr’s cynicism looks almost disingenuous. This even though the film, like other Coen brothers projects, assumes a somewhat condescending stance with regard to her church ladies group, affection for her cat Pickles, and devotion to her husband (whose portrait changes expressions, as if judging the scoundrels who have infested his home). That she remains a mystery to Dorr and the others — not to mention the fact that she’s played by Hall — grants Marva her own sort of dignity, but the movie doesn’t provide much in the way of explanation or empathy. She’s as unsubtle a character as any of the others, but considerably less discomforting. In the age of Montel, maybe that counts as progress.