The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are two of the most acclaimed filmmakers working today, and are almost certainly the most lauded currently active film-making duo. Their filmography is rife with cult classics and best picture nominees alike, and at times it seems that everything that they touch turns to gold. However, that was not always the case.
In 2004, the Coen’s released a quasi-remake of the Peter Sellers / Alec Guinness movie “The Ladykillers,” starring one of the most acclaimed contemporary actors in Tom Hanks. The match seemed destined for glory, with Hanks coming off of acclaimed roles in “Catch Me If You Can” and “Road to Perdition,” and the Coens having just released a series of acclaimed films (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Intolerable Cruelty,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There”). Even T-Bone Burnett, who produced the highly acclaimed music for “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and “The Big Lebowski,” was attached to work on the soundtrack. Every aspect of the film seemed crafted with winning in mind. “The Ladykillers,” however, was not received well.
Despite being nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Irma P. Hall receiving wide acclaim for her role in the film, “The Ladykillers” was widely panned, and is often considered to be the weakest of the Coen brothers’ works. The film has an underwhelming 55% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, and an even lower audience score at 43%. The IMDb users have the film at a slightly higher 6.2, which is still far from a fantastic score for the Coens.
This is one of those films where I think the context of the movie is absolutely essential to understanding the critical response to it. For instance, most of the criticisms of “The Ladykillers” that you will find pulled together on Rotten Tomatoes fall into one of three categories:
1. The Coens can do better than this / Why isn’t this another “Fargo?”
‘Frankly, this doesn’t have that Coen magic.’
‘When the Coen brothers are capable of making brilliant stuff like Fargo, should they really be spending their time making pictures like The Ladykillers?’
‘There’s a hint of the usual Coen genius here…but only a hint.’
‘If you set your expectations low enough there are real laughs to be had, but coming to the Coens with low expectations somehow just feels wrong.’
2. The characters are too quirky and unbelievable
‘…a series of hoops the characters must jump through to prove just how strange they are.’
‘A lukewarm live-action Loony Tunes cartoon’
3. It isn’t as good as the original “The Ladykillers”
‘The Coen Brothers try their hand at remaking one of the best of the 1950s Alec Guinness comedies. A version that has little to offer anyone who has seen the original.’
‘Uninvolving and tedious rendition of the 1955 British classic, film is too slow at the gate with longwinded speeches bogging down the momentum.’
‘Such a slight effort compared to the original Ladykillers and past Coen works.’
Just looking at 1 and 3, you can start to see why people were so hard on “The Ladykillers.” Not only is the film a remake of a beloved classic that could not possibly be lived up to, but people had very high expectations of the Coens. Although “Intolerable Cruelty” received generally better reviews “The Ladykillers,” it also faced the perhaps unrealistic criticism by many of being “too normal” or “not Coen enough.” I personally think that the timing of “The Ladykillers,” following only a year after “Intolerable Cruelty,” likely suffered from being the second of two consecutive a-typical Coen brothers movies. Critics that tolerated “Cruelty” as an experiment by the Coens weren’t going to forgive another film that didn’t fit the preordained Coen mold, which I think is a real injustice for the film.
Looking at “The Ladykillers” on its own merits, it is definitely a strange, dark comedy with highly exaggerated characters. The criticism that the characters are too unrealistic and quirky isn’t exactly wrong, but I think that they all fit the generally off-kilter ambiance of the film perfectly. In any case, I don’t think that the way the characters behave or interact is an error on the part of the Coens: I think that “The Ladykillers” is exactly the movie that they intended to make. It may not be in accordance with the tastes of general audiences, but since when has that ever stopped the Coens from making whatever movie they felt like making?
“The Ladykillers” may very well be the weakest of the Coen brothers filmography, but I would say that it is far from being a bad film overall. The negative critical reception at the time was, in my opinion, unfair. I believe that both the acclaim of the Coens, the popularity of the source material, and the fatigue of the critics after the “a-Coen-esque” “Intolerable Cruelty” set this movie up to fail from the start, as the Coen’s vision of the film was never in accordance with what audiences and critics wanted or expected from them. One of my favorite negative criticisms of “The Ladykillers” listed on Rotten Tomatoes unintentionally illuminates this point:
“Increasingly, the Coens seem more intent on amusing themselves than the audience.”
Y’know what? There is nothing at all wrong with that. I think that same attitude has produced a number of more recent Coen movies, such as “Burn After Reading” and “A Simple Man.” Particularly, “A Simple Man” is not a film that ever had a chance at a wide draw, but they made it anyway. If the Coens started making movies just to amuse an audience, then they wouldn’t have the integrity and acclaim that they have today as artists in the film world. At the time of “The Ladykillers,” I don’t think audiences or critics were ready for the free-wheeling Coens that we have now. Hell, there were a good number of critics that greatly disliked “The Big Lebowski” at the time, and that film looks damn near mainstream compared with the sort of movies they have put out since then.
On the flip side, the negative reaction to “The Ladykillers” almost certainly directly led to one massive positive: “No Country For Old Men.” Functioning as the opposite end of the pendulum swing to “The Ladykillers,” the Coen’s follow-up was exactly the dark, brooding spectacle that people were craving from them, and the brothers reaped their rewards for it. Perhaps the Coens would have done “No Country” regardless of how “The Ladykillers” was received, but I’m willing to bet that having “The Ladykillers” blow up in their face gave them a little more incentive to give the people what they wanted, for better or worse.