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The Ladykillers (2004) The Coen Brothers
FOREWORD by Roderick Jaynes I begged them not to do it. Having heard that 'the boys' - as, given Joel and Ethan Coen's advancing age, it is becoming increasingly ludicrous to call them –had determined to remake the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, I reflected that I, uniquely perhaps among that utterly charming movie's millions of devotees, had entree with the prospective vandals and might, as their film editor of long standing, be able to prevail upon them to forgo this particular outrage.
The Coen Brothers FOREWORD to The Ladykillers by Roderick Jaynes The very idea of someone remaking what has always been a favourite movie of mine would have been discomfiting under any circumstances; that the remake would be executed by two people whom I knew first-hand to have sensibilities too coarse to absorb, much less recreate, the delicate comedy of the original made me feel as if a particularly massive python were wound round my chest, applying its everywhere- muscled body to the task of squeezing the breath from my more intermittently muscled own. My feeling of helplessness acted as bugle-boy to that old reservist Colonel Rage, and my query to the two bejowled enfants terribles as to their motives was raggedly bout de souffle (to swerve briefly into the Norman lane); respiration and speech were mortal enemies, and the brothers stared, awaiting the battle's outcome.
The Coen Brothers FOREWORD to The Ladykillers by Roderick Jaynes When I finally issued with sufficient clarity the word 'But' and, some moments later, the word 'why', they informed me with a puzzled air that the Walt Disney Studios were offering them perfectly good money to do an updating of the Alec Guinness vehicle which was, after all, 'just some English movie' that 'nobody under eighty-five' had ever even seen. Well: the yoking of two dismissive antecedents to the word 'English', and the implicit reference to my own age (overstated, incidentally, by two years), tapped in me new abscesses of anger. I likened the boys - unfairly, perhaps, in light of the fact that both now use reading glasses and grunt audibly when rising from chairs - to especially limber prostitutes whose improble disport would offend lovers of film, ordinary Brits proud of their patrimony, and the shuddering shade of Sir Alec, and asked whether there were anything they held sufficiently dear that they would not consider swapping it for a mess of pottage. After consideration Joel replied, 'What's pottage?'
The Coen Brothers FOREWORD to The Ladykillers by Roderick Jaynes Finding myself torn between the impulse to educate (always, with the lads, an exercise in frustration) and a desire to retract a figure of speech that I recognized as inapt as soon as uttered (evoking, as pottage-trading does, rashness and naiveté rather than heartless calculation), I decided to tack. I appealed to their proprietary feelings about their own films, asking how they would take it if someone with a sensibility quite unlike their own were to remake one of their efforts, preserving its title and the bones of its story while violating its spirit. Ethan, nodding, seemed impatient to reply: they were 'way ahead' of me, he said; 'our lawyer always puts it in that we get a shitload of money if there's a remake.’
The Coen Brothers FOREWORD to The Ladykillers by Roderick Jaynes Twice repelled, I considered folding my tents, but love of Cinema stirred me to one more assault on the fortress of Ignorance be it ever so stoutly defended. I suggested to the boys that the original movie was a finely hand-painted teacup: its value, I pointed out, was not limited to serving as vessel from which tea might be slurped. Although one could contrive a facsimile that would serve equally well in that regard, the copy would in all likelihood not retain the signal virtue of the original: to wit, that the sheer virtuosity of its workmanship can sustain the rapturous contemplation of the connoisseur. I believe I laid out the simile with cogency and force, but Ethan replied that though I, 'as an English guy,' might know more about tea, so far as my position could be discerned it was not that of the Walt Disney Studios, and I, therefore, would do well to get stuffed - which, while not Ethan's exact word, does share some of its letters, notably 'f and 'u'.
The Coen Brothers FOREWORD to The Ladykillers by Roderick Jaynes This gives me occasion to observe that in formal expression, as in colloquial, there are differences between British English and American, and that they reflect in the verbal realm my differences with these Calibans in the cinematic. In writing, British English tends to preserve archaisms of spelling more often than does headlong American; it will linger in history's curiosity shop to admiringly finger the bric-a-brac, and is less slave to those hard-eyed taskmasters Economy and Efficiency. British writing is the more sinuous, accommodating subordinate clauses and qualifiers and second thoughts and even digressions that in circling and probing the subject not only meticulously plot its outline and painstakingly colour it in, but also form a pleasing picture of their own path to that end. American writing, on the other hand, seems impatient to state the case and move on. Implicitly, for the British the means of expression are themselves of interest, while for the Americans all that's of interest is the matter expressed. And if one mode of expression is as good as another, why not remake a classic? Perhaps, then, my efforts to dissuade were doomed; certainly, they were unsuccessful.
The Coen Brothers FOREWORD to The Ladykillers by Roderick Jaynes And as a result, there is this Foreword; regrettably, there are also the other pages of this book; sadder still, there is the film derived therefrom. Yes, I edited the movie - defensively, as it were, so that hands more heedless than mine would not. I was able to excise but a few of the cruder jokes which are to be found in the script that follows and fewer still of actor Marlon Wayans' rank extemporizations which, mercifully, are not. Thank me for what I was able to cut; for the rest, thank those responsible. Hayward's Heath, May 2004
The Ladykillers (2004) Cast The Coen Brothers
The genius of Alec Guinness was in his anonymity. He could play a character so ingratiating that he ingratiated himself right into invisibility, and that was the secret of his work in "The Ladykillers," a droll 1955 British comedy that also starred Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom. Now comes a Coen brothers remake with Tom Hanks in the Guinness role, and although Hanks would be the right actor to play a low-key deceiver, the Coens have made his character so bizarre that we get distracted just by looking at him. --Roger Ebert
The Coen Brothers Even Marva is sometimes betrayed by the Coens, who give her speeches that betray themselves as too clever by half (protesting a neighbor's loud "hippity-hop" music, she complains that the songs use the N-word "2,000 years after Jesus! Thirty years after Martin Luther King! In the Age of Montel!" If she'd said "Oprah," it might have been her talking, but when she says "Montel," you can feel the Coens' elbow digging in your side. There's also a subplot involving Mrs. Munson's regular donations to Bob Jones University; she is apparently unaware of its antediluvian attitudes about race. There are too many moments where dialogue seems so unmatched to the characters that they seem to be victims of a drive-by ventriloquist. --Roger Ebert
The Coen Brothers What the movie finally lacks, I think, is modesty. The original "Ladykillers" was one of a group of small, inspired comedies made at the low-rent Ealing Studios near London, where Guinness was the resident genius; his other titles from the period include "Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949), "The Lavender Hill Mob" (1950) and "The Man in the White Suit" (1951). These were self-effacing films; much of their humor grew out of the contrast between nefarious schemes and low-key, almost apologetic behavior. The Coens' "Ladykillers," on the other hand, is always wildly signaling for us to notice it. Not content to be funny, it wants to be FUNNY! Have you ever noticed that the more a comedian wears funny hats, the less funny he is? The old and new "Ladykillers" play like a contest between Buster Keaton and Soupy Sales. --Roger Ebert
The Coen Brothers The 1956 "The Ladykillers," directed by Alexander Mackendrick and written by William Rose, was a different story. Blacker and wilder than the usual Ealing comedy, the movie still looks pretty wild today. Guinness starred in this one, too, but instead of playing another of his "fubsy" characters, he was a criminal mastermind, outfitted with a hideous pair of protruding teeth. Pretending to be a musician he rents a room from a little old Victorian lady (the inimitable Katie Johnson) who believes that the cronies who come to visit Guinness (including a very young Peter Sellers as a Teddy Boy crook) are all part of his string quintet. She doesn't have a clue they're using her home to plan a robbery. When she finds out and insists that the robbers must be gentlemen and return the money, the gang decides it's time to dispose of her. Only they're the ones who wind up getting picked off, one by one.—Charles Taylor in Salon
The Coen Brothers The comedy of "The Ladykillers" comes from the intrusion of murder into a genteel Victorian atmosphere of tea cozies and middle-class propriety. The movie is like a daydream in which the ordinary is transformed by an enveloping sense of ominous comic dementia. The contrast still gives the movie a pleasurable jolt (just as another Ealing great, "Kind Hearts and Coronets," does). --Charles Taylor in Salon
The Coen Brothers As with their last movie, "Intolerable Cruelty," I had the feeling that "The Ladykillers" could have been really funny if they had simply trusted the material and not felt the endless need to tweak it. Part of the problem with "The Ladykillers" is that the vulgarity feels so premeditated it has no ribald surprise. But then nothing in the movie is really surprising. When Irma P. Hall smacks Marlon Wayans upside the head, the joke doesn't explode because she looks like she's dying to smack someone upside the head from the moment we first lay eyes on her. The Coens have a sense of the antic and the comic grotesque; they have a knack for silly, absurd details that go off like a firecracker. But they lack the one thing crucial to sustaining a comedy: patience. They have no sense of delaying laughs while preparing for the payoff. "The Ladykillers" is structured like a Mad magazine parody where there's a promised joke in each frame. It doesn't add up to a movie. --Charles Taylor in Salon
The Coen Brothers Since the release of their neo-noir "Blood Simple" in 1984, Joel and Ethan Coen have kept the flames of movie love burning. In one after another of their features, the brothers have revisited classic film genres and bygone eras, carving out a signature filmmaking style with great visual flair and their trademark ironic deadpan. From the evidence, the brothers have a passion for film noir, gangster movies and screwball comedies, with a large place in their cold, cold hearts reserved for Preston Sturges. If the Coens loved people as much as they loved movies, they could be put up for sainthood... --Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
The Coen Brothers But the Coens do not seem to like people and that is one reason why their remake of the darkly funny English comedy "The Ladykillers" is an uncharacteristic if unsurprising dud. Released in 1955, the original film was one of a number of sharply honed comedies produced at the London-based Ealing Studios beginning in the late 1940s and lasting through the mid-1950s. Some of the greatest Ealing comedies starred Alec Guinness, who pulled off an early career hat trick playing eight members of the same ill-fated family in the 1949 pearl "Kind Hearts and Coronets." Six years later, Guinness astonished again in one of his greatest roles as Professor Marcus, the comically ghoulish, constitutionally inept criminal mastermind of "The Ladykillers.“ --Manohla Dargis, The New York Times