Film/TV » Film Features

Fool Proof

The Ladykillers and the search for dignity.



We must have waffles. We must all have waffles, forthwith. And think. We must have waffles and think."

This is my favorite line from The Ladykillers and the moment from the film's trailer that inspired me to see it. Tom Hanks as "Professor" Goldthwait H. Dorr, an anachronistic Twain-type -- replete with Southern drawl and three-piece ice cream suit, sitting in a Waffle Hut -- plots a robbery. Most would try to be inconspicuous, but Professor Dorr is too eccentric to notice that he's eccentric or that his team of misfit conspirators is indeed misfit. There is the dumb brute, Lump (Ryan Hurst), the hip-hopper Gawain (Marlon Wayans), the chain-smoking Viet Cong veteran, the General (Tzi Ma), and the blowhard handyman Mr. Pancake (J.K. Simmons). They are like a joke -- the kind that walks into a bar with a priest and a rabbi. They are fools.

Anecdote: I recently dined with my friend Brannen at a Starbucks. I got a salad, which came in a large, saucer-like plastic container. Brannen and I sat near an intense, artsy looking fellow who kept falling asleep, literally hitting the table as he fell, thus waking himself up. Nearby, a clutch of giggly girls squealed about whatever they were squealing about. Eating my salad, I had to stop to remove something strange I had bitten into. It was a prong of the fork that had somehow dislodged and stuck in my throat. As we left, I tried with one hand to dispose of my garbage into the prohibitively small hole of the Starbucks garbage can while holding my brambleberry tea in my other hand. The salad container was too large to be downed. The girls stopped giggling long enough to chime, "Well, that's not going to work!" before erupting into even shriller peals. I tried harder to push the container down, but the top flipped up and the fork flew away. More squeals and even a smirk from the sleeping man before once again drifting to sleep. Brannen asked, on our way out, if I had ever been likened to the movie character Mr. Bean.

Ah, Mr. Bean. Played by Rowan Atkinson, Mr. Bean is a smug bumbler, haughty and arrogant on the outside, stooge on the inside, a desperate, weird man searching for the slightest modicum of dignity. This is why I enjoyed The Ladykillers. Not because it's good, because it isn't very, and not because it's howlingly funny, because it isn't that either. It's because this film is essentially about two souls on two different quests for dignity, without the slightest comprehension of their ridiculousness. Like Mr. Bean. Like me.

Soul #1: Professor Dorr. Soul #2: Marva Munson (the sublime Irma P. Hall), an elderly black lady whose devotion to Jesus through prayer and churchgoing is seconded in regularity only by her monthly $5 checks to Bob Jones University of which she knows little except that it's a Bible college. Dorr hides behind his vocabulary in his search for esteem. Marva's shield is the Good Book. Dorr rents a room in Munson's home, only so he and his cronies can use her root cellar to burrow to a nearby casino vault. Their guise: They are Renaissance-period instrumentalists who play devotional music. Hallelujah! The plot thickens once Marva stumbles onto their scheme. Money in hand, the mission changes from thievery to murder. But like the Energizer Bunny, cockroaches, or Dick Clark, she can't be killed.

As far as comedy goes, this is fairly broad. The Coens' recent O Brother, Where Art Thou? at least had a ribbon of drama through it (not to mention that fantastic bluegrass music, grounding it to something just beyond drama or comedy). In classical terms, this is more like a Larry, Curly, and Moe film, where a Buster Keaton-style might have been more appreciated. There is even a portrait of Marva's late husband that changes expressions to suit whatever slapstick moment has preceded -- just in case the audience didn't know to laugh. The treat, therein, is the quirky chemistry between Hall and Hanks who are as evenly matched in wit and delivery as can be seen in any film duo this decade. The scene where Marva talks to Dorr as he's hiding under a bed, while a sheriff looks on assuming that she's crazy and talking to a cat, is probably the film's funniest.

The Ladykillers is not for everyone, which is par for the course for the off-center Coen brothers but not for the mainstream Hanks, who's trying something a little different here, folks. I wish The Ladykillers had been a worthier vehicle for the kind of villainous experiment he performs, but at least it has revealed the luminous, dignified "fool," Irma P. Hall.

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