Wednesday, April 04, 2007

171. Barks of Yore

When, in his first scene in the Coen brothers’ version of The Ladykillers (2004), Tom Hanks as Professor Goldthwaite H. Dorr, Ph. D. (“Like Elmer?”) leans forward and, in a tone of conspiratorial glee mingled with equal parts bombastic charm, condescending inclusion, and self-conscious befuddlement, informs Mrs. Marva Hudson (Irma P. Hall), "You, madam, are addressing a man who is in fact quiet ... and yet, not quiet, if I may offer to you a riddle," I knew that this was going to be one of those Coen brothers movies that might do many things wrong, but would prove irresistible in its consistent commitment to a kind of neo-Dickensian strategy of tagging characters via distinctive quirks of speech and manner. And The Ladykillers is mostly that, a celebration of caricature-as-character, inviting instant recognition and acceptance, at least within the narrow--"and yet, not narrow" (like I said, irresistible)--confines of its slight contraption of a plot.

As one of the Coen faithful, I am quick to forgive their lapses, eager to exaggerate their gifts. But if their work holds up, it is again especially because of, not despite, their unwavering faith in accents, postures, tics and twitches, as well as slaps, screams, and Hal Roach takes and slow burns--not to mention the pinpoint-accurate sledgehammer they take to the notion of mock-epic dialogue. The Ladykillers may not be the most coherent example of the object of my faith, but it is among its best-written--Prof. Dorr’s vocabulary alone is one of the most sprightly and recondite ever composed in the history of screenwriting (and infectious; even a newspaper headline glimpsed near the end of the movie, after Dorr and his fellow ersatz lovers of music of the "Ren-AY-zahnce" have robbed the casino, solemnly informs us, "Authorities Perplexed"). And Tom Hanks' performance explores every obscure corner of the House of Dorr. He turns his face slightly toward his listeners, inventing himself as he goes along--we can see it in his eyes--and accumulating authority while grasping desperately for purchase with every step. Like Gump, and Viktor Navorski in The Terminal (2004) before him, Prof. Dorr achieves solidity with what in some hands could merely be a distracting dependence on bizarro vocal work (consider every third Adam Sandler movie), but with Hanks becomes his--and our--entrance to the core of his character. Sometimes all a good actor needs is the freedom to invent an anchor. Commenting on his Oscar nomination for Driving Miss Daisy, Dan Akroyd joked/noted that he did so well because they let him wear a hat. Again, such such a triviality can move a performance all the way. Olivier, in one of his frequent declamatory moods, is quoted as announcing, "We ape, we mimic, we mock. We act." A bit much, perhaps, but I like the combination of self-deprecation and scorn. It speaks to the kind of performance Hanks manages with Dorr: disdainful of itself but delighted as well, willing to be simultaneously laughed at and loved. We never pity or fear Dorr--or fear for him--but we can't wait for him to open his yap.

While the film orbits around Tom Hanks' and Irma P. Hall's characters--with of course much more "colliding" than "orbiting"--the rest of the cast also pitches in and sells sells sells. I'm reminded of Glen Garry, Glen Ross, another film that, if listened to closely, does not shine as brightly as other David Mamet efforts, but captures your attention through the sheer force of its performers. Of course, in The Ladykillers, Marlon Wayans stands out in more ways than one: A gifted mugger--yes, I wrote "mugger"--in his own right, he is also I think the only “hippety-hop” character the Coens have attempted thus far. While I wonder how much Wayans brought to his performance—the Internet Movie Database does not give him a writing credit—I think the Coens have raised the stakes with Gawain MacSam. He is the third world bashing around The Ladykilers' universe, opposed to everyone, especially J.K. Simmons' Garth Pancake, a startling performance in its own right, in which an anal-retentive surety vies with a weak flank--or should I say an irritable bowel--that renders Pancake the film's best (but false) hope for order and success. The other ladykillers--Tzi Ma as The General (his acrobatic, disappearing cigarette one of many silent-comedy visual references--even his mustache and wide-eyed concentration have a certain referential quality--I was going to mention Chaplin, but there’s more than a hint of Ben Turpin there); and Ryan Hurst as Lump Hudson (and fans of Spongebob Squarepants will recognize the echo of Bill “Dauber” Fagerbakke’s Patrick Starfish in Hurst’s breathless monotone, a sound that takes us back to Alex Karas' Mongo in Blazing Saddles, which in turn has been handed down, I think, from the paleolithic murmur of Lon Chaney’s Lennie from Of Mice and Men and the primal honk of Edgar Bergen’s Mortimer Snerd), provide opportunities for chaos through sheer variety, rather than the coherence of an ensemble. I think this may be the source of some critics' concerns, but one must accept the Coens' desire here to cram in as much as possible, and to play with the outer limits of caricature.

The sum total of The Ladykillers is of course much less than its parts. It does not resonate, as do Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, or Fargo, let alone the down-Homeric hootenanny, O Brother, Where Art Thou?--although the last gains its strength by being a rich visual and aural experience, while the others seem more deliberate in their attempt to provide a coherent plot or generate a more textured mood. Still, I return to Hanks' performance. Like many of his efforts, it is a combination of nuance and proportion, which has gotten better and better over the years--although earlier "mature" performances, especially Forrest Gump, show us how he can use a Coen staple like an accent or exaggerated posture to invite us wholly into the world he creates. And let's go almost all the way back and admit no one has ever played a kid (including actual kids) better than Hanks in Big. With Prof. Dorr, he is given the chance to reach almost too far, and he certainly does go right to the edge, but rears back at the last second with a whispery-whinnying laugh, his handkerchief dabbing at the corner of his mouth. Dickens' readers will always remember Wemmick in Great Expectations with his mouth like a letterbox slot, and Madame DeFarge knitting and knitting and knitting in A Tale of Two Cities--and the entire manifold whistling, limping, goggle-eyed, head-ducking lot of them, all fitting neatly into Dickens' novels with--I'll state it again--surprising nuance and proportion, so that, despite our best efforts, we sympathize with and feel we understand these bags of quirks, so that in the end they do have their own shapes, even if they must summarily be conked on the head with a gargoyle and dumped into the, well, dump. "Sometimes, it's the only way."

Abnormally faithful readers may recall this piece from my previous site, The Home Viewer, from three or so years ago. I've tweaked and re-punctuated and so on, but the song remains more or less the same.

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