Unnecessary translation

I guess no-one hits the target every time, creatively speaking: I certainly know I don’t. But after our project to watch the complete Coen Brothers oeuvre in (rough) chronological order led us to three mediocre films in quick succession, I’m hoping they just had a bad patch—certainly their later movies have a good reputation. It’s hard not to make comparisons. Every director has their ups and downs, their less successful endeavours; but even a poor Quentin Tarantino or Mike Leigh film is still pretty much a good movie, and still recognisably the work of that director. Presumably the Coens wanted to make some big Hollywood bucks, as they were writers and directors for hire on the three productions I’m thinking of: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, and the one we’ve seen most recently, their remake of Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 Ealing classic The Ladykillers.

All judgements of quality are relative, of course. The Ladykillers isn’t bad in the sense that there are things wrong with the acting or the editing, or that it obviously lacks self-awareness with respect to race or gender (although there are a couple of borderline moments in respect of the latter). It tells its story clearly, and delivers a lot of well-prepared and well-paced gags. It has a strong cast, and although they certainly ham things up, that’s no kind of a criticism in and of itself. It’s a perfectly decent Hollywood comedy, ideal for whiling away a lazy afternoon when you want to give your brain a rest: in other words, it’s thoroughly mediocre, and shows little or no sign of its creators’ trademark narrative and cinematographic innovation.

What this film doesn’t do is add anything to the story told in the original British flick. It doesn’t really reinvent it in any notable way—in fact it seems at pains to reproduce and translate its cultural frame of reference as faithfully as possible, while transposing its setting to a soft-focus version of contemporary America. The only thing that seems to have been done to the original property, is to make it marketable to a modern movie audience. So someone presumably had the rights, thought they’d like to exploit them, and hired the Coens to put together an appropriate product. They don’t miss the target like they did in Intolerable Cruelty, whose protagonists are so unsympathetic I was utterly uninterested in finding out what happened to them, but there’s honestly nothing much to say about this film. It’s The Ladykillers, but it’s set in Mississippi in 2004. As far as I can tell, it’s completely unnecessary.

4 Comments

  1. I couldn’t make it through this one. Kind of a cringey watch, particularly in 2020. I think White guys trying to write funny Black characters is always a potential large-scale fail and one I wish the Coens would have avoided.

  2. I love this movie, but I agree that it’s low tier Coen. Still, I think Tom Hanks’s performance here is terribly underrated and SO funny. I haven’t seen him do anything quite like it before or since.

      1. I have, and it’s very funny! And obviously more high-brow than this one, but I enjoy both (also I might have liked Lavender Hill Mob a touch more? But that one doesn’t have Peter Sellers, and I haven’t seen either of those since I was pretty small)

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