In spring 2004, the Coen Brothers released a movie that many considered to be a career low — or at least, it would have been a career low had they not released Intolerable Cruelty six months earlier. Still, The Ladykillers registered as a huge disappointment from the duo behind Fargo and The Big Lebowski, and, while the movie deserves its poor reputation, it does feature Tom Hanks’ greatest comedic performance.
To give you the plot, The Ladykillers — which is a remake — is a heist movie where a gang of criminals are plotting to rob a casino vault. To pull it off, Hanks’ character rents a room from an elderly woman whose basement offers a prime location to tunnel into the vault. Later on, after they’ve stolen the money, the old woman discovers the gang’s misdeeds, which means that they now have to kill her, hence the film’s title.
Because the premise is so simple, it’s hard to imagine the sort of mind-bending weirdness of a Coen Brothers movie like Barton Fink. But with the Coens’ knack for broad, memorable characters, you would have hoped that they’d deliver something like Raising Arizona. Instead, the movie is unevenly written, largely miscast and doesn’t know what to do with the talent it has on set. It also doesn’t seem to know if it’s a period piece or not thanks to it’s uncomfortable blend of characters. Worst of all, when the movie gets to the “lady-killing” part, the manners of execution are all uninteresting, lacking in the gruesome originality of Fargo’s woodchipper or the hilariously surprising deaths of the far better Burn After Reading.
However, two of the film’s actors never got the memo that the movie was going to suck: Irma P. Hall, who plays the old woman, and Hanks. Both are broad, hilarious and, when together, feature the snappy banter you’d expect from the Coens. During the film’s run, Hall was recognized as a bright spot in the picture, but while some critics praised Hanks’ performance, his work was soon forgotten, buried under his more successful films.
Prior to The Ladykillers, Hanks had done a number of heavy, dramatic projects like The Green Mile, Cast Away and Road to Perdition, and it seems that he needed a respite from all that seriousness. In the movie, he plays Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr PhD, a loquacious, erudite conman, who speaks in a sort-of hyper-intelligent gibberish and who loves to recite the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe.
He chews scenery in the best kind of way. The Professor is an inspired, immoral cartoon character performed by an actor who is an unquestioned master of his craft. Seriously, just look how this guy orders waffles, it’s fucking hilarious:
The fact that The Ladykillers is so bad makes Hanks shine even more. He wasn’t about to let a mediocre movie get in the way of his good time, so he hams it up with delight, cracking up with the Professor’s breathy laugh and offering the physicality of a silent film actor. Like in this scene, where he bounds up the stairs in a panic after an explosion in the old lady’s house:
Now, if you’re looking for a great movie named The Ladykillers, I refer you to the 1955 original, starring the likes of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. The classic British black comedy is incredibly funny, consistently sharp and hilariously sinister. The movie’s only problem is that it doesn’t feature Tom Hanks as Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr PhD.
And for that, it cannot compare.