It wouldn't be fair to say I'm a big Coen brothers fan. Instead I am a great admirer of their best films. Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother Where Art Thou were all among the best films of their respective years, with Fargo being a true masterpiece and the other two films being arguable. Their other movies have included some relatively entertaining but unpolished films (Specifically Raising Arizona and The Man Who Wasn't There), a Hollywood film that never reached its potential (Intolerable Cruelty) and some stuff that just wasn't very good (Hudsucker Proxy.) The Ladykillers falls into the latter category, but with an experimental spirit I couldn't help but root for.
Yet despite rooting for the film I was disappointed. There was a lot to like about it, specifically the sets and sense of place it managed, but they couldn't overcome the fundamental flaws. The main problem was the characters. They were each at least somewhat original, but they were also caricatures and none felt authentic except for a Vietnamese general who probably has about 5 lines in the entire film and wears a charming Chaplainesque mustache.
Tom Hanks and Irma P. Hall are the ostensible stars of the film, and while both do credible jobs as actors their characters are just as sketched out as the rest. Mrs. Munson seems at first to be a dimwitted old lady, which in fact is what she is. During the climactic part of the film where the crooks try to off her she doesn't overcome them through anything resembling wit or toughness. She just gets lucky (or is delivered by the grace of god. There's a religious theme to the film, which wouldn't be so bad if it didn't seem to endorse Bob Jones university in a manner that's just barely ironic.) Meanwhile Hanks' character is an over the top charlatan snake oil salesman who is neither as clever or as dim as he seems. The rest of the characters follow suit. The plot is simple and straightforward with few twists that are not blindingly obvious, and there are racist tinges at the edges that make you vaguely uncomfortable.
What we are left with, then, is a movie that is unconventional in all the wrong ways. It is darkly irreverent for no apparent reason, boldly obvious when it should be at least a little bit tricky, and without any sort of core. It is not a plot piece, not a funny comedy, not a character film, the only thing it has going for it is its lovely set direction and sense of place, which is undermined by the fact that there are only 4 major locations in the entire film and a large proportion of the time is spent in a single living room and a root cellar. The Ladykillers is an example of what happens when a director tries to impose his unique vision and spin upon a movie with no there there. He ends up just spinning his wheels while the audience is left confused and thinking "Hmm...with a little more substance that could have been a pretty good flick." But there is no more substance, so it isn't.