Though Steven Soderbergh has had a lengthy career full of acclaimed projects, he’s perhaps best known for his remake of Ocean’s 11, a successful compiling of some of the biggest names in Hollywood for a good, old-fashioned heist movie that was so successful it spawned two sequels. Despite the fact that he was better known for artier fare when Ocean’s Eleven was released, audiences responded well to this fairly simple robbery tale, and the slight modern spin that Soderbergh put on the film’s largely vintage aesthetic got pretty universal praise.
If there are any filmmakers working today who have a heftier resume of acclaimed works than Steven Soderbergh, then they’re definitely named Joel and Ethan Coen. The Coen brothers have been making artsy, weird movies ever since the mid-80s, and though it’s taken them a while to achieve any real financial success, they’ve always enjoyed an ever-increasing amount of critical acclaim. That is, until they ventured into the romantic comedy and heist genres in 2003 and 2004 with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. These two films are widely regarded as the Coens’ worst work, and their only movies worst skipping. This feeling is erroneous, however, because The Ladykillers in particular is very Coens and very fun, and the world was wrong for vilifying them for making a simple heist movie with a throwback feel. I mean, nobody minded when Soderbergh did it.
What do they have in common?
Both of these movies involve a rag-tag group of ne’er-do-wells being brought together because they each have a specific skill that makes them essential for an extremely intricate heist plan, and both heists involve casino money vaults. Both movies have something of a throwback feel. Ocean Eleven recalls the heist films of the ’60s, especially the Rat Pack-starring original that it’s a remake of. And though The Ladykillers is technically set in modern times, it takes its visual and sonic cues from classic Hollywood’s depictions of the old south. Technically they’re both remakes as well, though The Ladykillers in particular doesn’t much resemble the London-set original from 1955.
Why is Oceans Eleven overrated?
Ocean’s Eleven’s main issue is one of tone. Soderbergh made it slick and cool, but it becomes pretty disaffected in the process. You get the impression that everyone involved in the production is having a lark, taking a paid vacation, and though most everyone involved in really talented, it’s not much fun to watch people going through the motions. The movie is inoffensive and it moves along at a nice clip, but after it’s over you’re left with a feeling of, “Was that it?” It’s very unabashedly a trifle, and there’s a bit of charm in that, but in the end a trifle is still a trifle.
A lot of that could have been avoided if the climactic heist sequence had just been more thrilling. Brad Pitt and George Clooney’s characters put together a pretty elaborate plan, but it all relies so much on implausible gadgetry that it’s hard to get very invested in what they’re trying to pull off. There’s a feeling that no matter what they go up against, they can just pull some multi-million dollar piece of equipment out of their butts to take care of it, and you’re left without any worry for their well-being. We’re never let in on the whole plan either – so they can create a moment where we get fooled – and that also robs the scene of possible stakes. Scenarios like this work best when the audience knows the layout of the location and every step of the plan by heart, so we can freak out when the slightest thing goes wrong. I call it the Dirty Dozen principal.
Ocean’s Eleven also suffers from too many characters getting too little to do. Nobody other than Clooney really gets developed past a quirk or a skill, and though that could have been an opportunity to create some wacky, cartoon creations, here it just makes everyone forgettable. Like he did in his recent action flick Haywire, Soderbergh is relying on everyone’s already established star personas to float them through the film without having to develop their characters properly. It’s kind of like cheating. Can anyone describe Danny Ocean’s ex-wife in any other way than by saying that she’s Julia Roberts? Me either.
Why is The Ladykillers underpraised?
The Ladykillers had two big things going for it heading into its release that I thought would mean surefire financial success but that didn’t end up amounting to much. The first was that Tom Hanks was returning to his comedic roots after a long and well-documented foray into dramatic works. Everyone loves Hanks, he’s one of the biggest stars on the planet, so shouldn’t there have been lines of people waiting around the block for the chance to see him take on a silly, broad character again? I guess not. And the crime is that Hanks’s take on the chicken-fried villain is delightful and weird. The second thing this movie had going for it was how much everyone loved O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s bluegrass soundtrack. It seemed like The Ladykillers was offering up a gospel equivalent, but I guess nobody cared, because there are a lot of amazing musical performances in this film that have gone unappreciated.
And nobody in this supporting cast is coasting. Everyone here is firing on all cylinders and the chemistry they create is killer. I don’t have the space to say enough about this weird collection of misfits. Each one is completely ridiculous in their own way and the comedy that gets produced when they’re put together in the same room is something to behold. But I will give specific mention to Irma P. Hall’s performance as Marva Munson. She basically takes the lady from Tom & Jerry and turns her into someone who you have deep affection and empathy for. She’s funny, charming, and outstandingly authentic. This was an awards-worthy performance, and she should have gotten recognition by the big awards shows.
The Ladykillers should also be commended for what a layered watch it is, and how much it rewards repeat viewings. Not content to be a simple heist movie, its third act turns into a series of murder plots, amping up the hilarity even further. You think things are climaxing with the robbery sequence, but then you basically get two movies in one. What a deal! And there are so many weird references and little character moments packed into every scene that there’s no way you can pick up on all of them with just one viewing. Did anybody hear, “You think you scare me you little punk? Bull Connor and all his dogs didn’t scare me,” the first time they saw this movie and know what J.K. Simmons was talking about? I sure didn’t, but it makes me laugh now.
Evening the odds.
The most successful movies add something to our cultural lexicon, they create moments or vernacular that get picked up and added into society’s unconscious. Ocean’s Eleven kind of achieved this, because, despite the fact that the hastily assembled robbery crew conceit has been around forever, many people now attribute the trope to Brad Pitt and George Clooney’s efforts here. The Ladykillers hasn’t even come close to adding anything to the culture conversation, but if I’ve ever heard anything in any film that deserves to be oft-quoted more than, “He brought his bitch to the Waffle Hut!,” then I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. It’s high time more people revisit The Ladykillers and give it some of the appreciation it deserves.