Based on a British film from the 1950s, The Ladykillers is a comedic heist movie centered on a group of people who desire to rob a casino. That sounds unique and original, doesn’t it? Well, The Ladykillers manages to keep its relatively simplistic idea fresh by switching up more than a couple of the expected plot threads and by also being very funny. You might have seen this type of movie before but you haven’t seen this exact one. The Ladykillers is worth seeing.
As these things often do, The Ladykillers begins with a single man and his plan. One Professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks), a slightly eccentric and well-spoken man, stumbles upon the house of an elderly lady, Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall). He inquires about a sign which claims that she has a room he can rent. Indeed, she does. He tells her that he’s on a sabbatical and is trying to discover something about music with his band. She says they can practice in the cellar. We know something’s not quite right but it’s tough to place exactly what that is.
As it turns out, Dorr isn’t in a band at all. That’s just a cover for a group of criminals he’s pulled together to perform this heist. The team includes: the “Inside Man” (Marlon Wayans), “The General” (Tzi Ma), the explosives engineer (J.K. Simmons), the “Muscle” (Ryan Hurst), and “Mountain Girl” (Diane Delano). Along with the “Brains,” the professor, we have our team of criminals. The target is a riverboat casino, kept afloat because gambling on land in this town is illegal, but on the water isn’t. It’s a legal loophole, I guess.
This all sounds pretty familiar. You’re probably waiting for the line “and then things start to go wrong.” Things do start to go wrong, and this eventually leads to the situation presented in the title. Mrs. Munson gets in the way and becomes a target. She has to be eliminated, or at least silenced. This happens about halfway through the film, and yet I don’t believe it’s a spoiler. The team then has to decide what to do with her and then find out if any of them have the gall to do what they decide.
It’s after this point when The Ladykillers becomes very quickly paced. Perhaps too quick. After the first death — no, it’s not Mrs. Munson — the film spirals downward and out of control very quickly. People start dying left and right, and then the film just sort of ends. It’s not that it finishes abruptly from a narrative standpoint, but it does spend a lot of time setting up and executing the crime that it felt like everything moved a bit too fast near the conclusion.
It is, however, all a lot of fun. From the build up to the heist, to the execution, as well as what happens after — it is all funny, breezy, and far more fun than a generic caper movie would be. There’s an offbeat sense of humor throughout the film, and that helps keep things light in tone even if the things happening on-screen are kind of morbid. Discussion and possible execution regarding killing an elderly lady? That’s not funny stuff, but the way that the Coen brothers, the film’s directors, go about showing this to us makes it far funnier than it should be.
Not all of The Ladykillers is a success. It’s an oddball movie but that means all of the individuals populating it are caricatures and not real characters or people. Traits are exaggerated to proportions that do not exist in the real world. Few of these people could exist. It’s fun to watch the actors play them but the film is nowhere near grounded in reality. It’s very oddball and if you need at least some aspect of your film to feel realistic you’re likely not going to enjoy The Ladykillers.
We also take a few detours to Mrs. Munson’s church, which often includes lengthy choir songs with little connection to the rest of the film. I couldn’t find any relation to the rest of the film, anyway. Perhaps there’s some higher symbolic reason for them to exist, but it escapes me; the songs come across as more or less pointless, especially at their length. You might appreciate them individually but as part of this movie they don’t really add anything.
For The Ladykillers, a fantastic set of actors has been assembled for the offbeat roles. Listening to Tom Hanks rattle off excessively convoluted and lengthy sentences is a joy, and he’s in top form here. Marlon Wayans and J.K. Simmons get into a bunch of arguments — the former laces his dialogue with more 4-letter words than one should speak while the latter can’t seem to fully commit to anything. Tzi Ma is mostly silent, and yet gets a few great laughs. Ryan Hurst can play mentally impaired. Irma P. Hall is sweet as Mrs. Munson.
The Ladykillers may anger fans of the original, and it won’t be for people who can’t tolerate a movie full of caricatures and not realistic people, but for my money it was a compact and funny experience, even if it its second half feels like it goes by far too quickly. It’s strange and some of the subplots don’t add a whole lot, but most of the film is a lot of fun and it’s something I don’t feel bad about recommending. This isn’t a must-see movie or even a top-tier Coen brothers feature, but it’s enjoyable and well worth the time.