Interviewing Joel and Ethan Coen during the making of their hilarious sophomore feature, Raising Arizona (1987), I made the silly mistake of pressing the brothers on their attraction to the subject of the movie—the obsession of a young couple with having a baby, even if it meant kidnapping one of a celebrated family of quintuplets on the grounds that the parents had four more. I wanted to hear them talk about … oh, I don't know: infertility, childrearing, topsy-turvy American family values. We were sitting in a Greek coffee shop, and they were smoking heavily, and as they stared at me dumbly doing their best in the face of so irrelevant a question, it was as if we'd drifted out to sea in a thick fog. Finally, Joel spoke, as if to a small child: "A baby's face … is fodder, right? It's movie fodder. People have certain expectations of a baby's face in a movie and we wanted to play with those expectations." Play with them as in setting that gurgly, happy baby face on the center line of a blacktop with a truck bearing down on it at 70 miles an hour. Later, their friend Barry Sonnenfeld put the matter in perspective. Topics and themes, he explained, are incredibly unimportant to the Coens. It's about movie storytelling in the abstract—i.e., fooling around with fodder.
It became easier for me to love the Coens when I accepted that their films were about little except toying (brilliantly) with found objects. My favorite of their movies might be their most inconsequential: the grab-bag stoner travesty of gumshoe mysteries The Big Lebowski (1998). And I had a surprisingly decent time at their big-studio remake of the 1955 Alec Guinness black comedy The Ladykillers (Touchstone), which is about nothing except transplanting a low-key British caper farce to rural Mississippi, with an old African-American woman at the center instead of a middle-class English biddy. It gives the Coens a chance to stage some rousing gospel numbers that have nothing to do with the plot (and T-Bone Burnett a chance to put together another soundtrack on the order of his multiplatinum O Brother Where Art Thou?), and Tom Hanks a chance to ditch his socially-responsible-movie-star persona for a spell and attempt a full-scale comic impersonation.
He succeeds, by the way—with gorgeous precision. As the would-be criminal mastermind Professor G.H. Dorr, Hanks presents himself at the lodgings of Mrs. Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) in a caped overcoat, clutching a polished walking stick: the image of a dapper Southern academic apart from a set of teeth a size too big for his mouth and an unfortunate snorting cackle that pegs him instantly as a ghoulish nerd. The team that the Professor assembles (posing as an antique-instruments baroque ensemble) is a perfect mixture of artistry and incompetence—guaranteed to screw up somehow, but not so bumbling that the scheme to rob a riverboat casino is without suspense. Marlon Wayans is the "inside man" with the chip on his shoulder for having to pose as a janitor; J.K. Simmons is the demolitions expert for whom safety comes second only to holding forth on the subject of safety; Tzi Ma is the former Vietnamese general with the smoldering butt affixed permanently to his lips; and Ryan Hurst is the muscle who's a bit of a lump, as suggested by his name, Lump. The challenge that the Coens have clearly set for themselves is to make these guys triumph—and crash-and-burn—in ways you can't predict, even if you've seen the '50s original.
The brothers make Irma P. Hall—a veteran of films like Soul Food (1997)—seem like the most spectacular found object: a formal, elegant old woman determinedly striding through the world on bowed legs, her immense body sloshing like a water balloon. But Hall's timing is too masterful for a found object. The Coens clearly worship her, along with her posse of old ladies who live for church in their Sunday best and the tea parties that follow. They have the kind of solidity that the stumblebum criminals can't touch. The mixture of cartoony stylization and regional realism is completely original—and a testament to the genius eye for color of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins and the designer Dennis Gassner. The Ladykillers loses its distinctive lumbering gait during the final Rube-Goldberg series of macabre catastrophes, but the movie has plenty of compensations: an account of a singles weekend at Grossinger's for sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome; a spooky cat that keeps coming back for more grotesque punch lines; and that joyous soundtrack, with live church gospels led by Rose Stone (of Sly and the Family fame).
The highlight of The Ladykillers is a bit of musical trickery: an amazing montage in which a baroque concerto metamorphoses into a gospel song, which segues into a hip-hop number then back to the gospel and then back to baroque. During the hip-hop sections, the thieves drop bags of dirt over the side of an impressive bridge onto a passing garbage barge headed out to a Mount Olympian isle of trash. The bags fall a long way and land with a satisfying pffft!—like the sacks of stolen Christmas toys in Chuck Jones' cartoon of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Ladykillers is small and compact—it doesn't kill, it's just a doodle—but it's a very pleasant cartoon for grown-ups. It's some sweet fodder.