You know you are in familiar Coen Brother territory from page one:
A BOAT Specifically, a garbage scow. We see it from on high, chugging down the placid but mighty Mississippi. Head Credits play over coverage of the garbage scow. No sound, except for an incongrously heroic score. The coverage is a little rough, coarse-grained; along with the overbearing score it almost suggests an industrial film rather than a feature. One piece of sound-the toot of the boat's horn-is obviously library. And not a new library either. The garbage scow passes under a bridge spanning the broad, sluggish waters, and procedes on to its landfillm a steaming river island. Disturbed gulls and other scavenger birds rise from where they were picking through trash. Their squawks, like the boat horn, are not quite believeable as sync. The head credits end as the anthemic music revolves.
From here, we are introduced to each of the major characters…
Mrs. Marva Munson, the elderly African-American church lady who lives in the small town of Saucier, Mississippi, and has a boarding house on the river. A pious woman who regularly donates to Bob Jones University, Mrs. Munson is eagle-eyed, sharply judgmental, with a dry, unsentimental sense of humor. She is used to getting her own way in her own home. She reveres the memory of her late husband, and regularly drops by the Sheriff’s office to complain about “hippity-hop” music. A woman with old-fashioned values, who bears a charmed life.
Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph. D. An expert in dead languages and Renaissance music – or so he claims. In fact, the floridly spoken Dorr is a criminal mastermind, intent on digging a tunnel from Mrs. Munson’s basement to the vault where the winnings of a local riverboat casino are stored after the end of the business day.
Clark Pancake, a florid beer-bellied man in his late 50s, with a full blond-grey Grizzly Adams beard and wears multi-pocketed shorts that form an ensemble with his Hemingway jacket. A demolitions expert who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome, he still retains some of his earnest idealism from the 60s. Clark mostly works on low-budgeted film project like dog food commercials, and is assisted by his lover, Mountain Girl. Recruited to join Dorr’s gang of losers and misfits, Pancake is in charge of any little explosive work that comes up during the tunnel-digging operation.
Gawain MacSam: an African-American man in the khaki uniform of a custodian, Gawain is a new employee at the Lady Luck riverboat casino – but in fact, he is the inside man of Dorr’s operation. A loudly funny and profane young thief, whose position at the casino is vital to Dorr’s scheme, Gawain is a man whose impulse control is lacking a governor. He is quick to lose his temper, especially with Clark Pancake, whom he comes to despise. After foolishly flirting on the job with a guest at the casino, Gawain is fired, and has to work his way back into custodial work with a little bribery.
The General: A middle-aged Vietnamese gentleman in a crisply pressed khaki leisure suit, wearing an ascot knotted at his neck and aviator eyeglasses, he is Nguyen Pham Doc, a former General in the Vietnamese Army who now runs a small donut shop in Mississippi. A taciturn man who constantly smokes cigarettes, he is an expert at dealing with young thugs and at digging tunnels, from his glory days back in Indochina. He is ecruited by Professor Dorr to handle the tunneling part of the caper.
Lump Hudson: A big blond boy in his early twenties whose entire body (including his face) is solidly built, Lump is a failed football player with the brain of a small stone. A loser and misfit, Lump is recruited to join Dorr’s gang as the “hooligan, a goon, an ape, a physical brute, who will be our security, our fist, our batterin’ ram.” Definitely the dullest tool in the shed, Lump is a straightforward young man who occasionally blunders onto the truth by being too dumb to consider other options.
Mountain Girl: A solid woman in her late forties, with freckles beginning to merge into age spots, Mountain Girl has long, straw-colored hair, tightly braided into Heidi pigtails bound with red ribbon. Clark Pancake’s lover and assistant, she shows up unexpectedly at the Waffle House to discuss the ordnance problems with Dorr and the other, provoking a minor crisis among Dorr’s cohorts. She too suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Like the best disciples of Robert McKee, the screenplay is perfectly set up in the three-act structure. Act I introduces the characters and the story, Act II moves the main thrust of the story forward and Act III deals with the aftermath of their actions, For those who familiar with the original Alec Guinness/Peter Sellers film and/or the Coens’ style in general can easily guess what happens. Men plan robbery, men commit robbery, bad things happen to men when they try to off an old lady. I won’t tell you what happens to any of the characters, suffice to say all the characters get exactly what is coming to them.
Tom Hanks is an inspired choice to play Professor Dorr. Had I read this script before Hanks was cast, I probably would have thought of twenty other actors to play this role before his name would have crossed my mind. And all of them would have been fine choices as well. Knowing Hanks would be playing Dorr made reading the screenplay that much easier in the theatre of my mind’s eye to see him as the Professor. I also saw the great Irma P. Hall as Mrs. Munson and Chris Klein as the dopey Lump. For better or worse, they were just the first people that leapt into my head as I started reading these roles.
One of the many things that had surprised me by what I’ve heard about the film as of this writing is that the roles of Clark and Mountain Girl were still in the process of casting. As I read the screenplay, it wasn’t difficult at all to see John Goodman and Frances McDormand in these roles. Doing some research, I was shocked to discover that, for all the fine work these two actors have individually done in Coen Brothers movies and in films for others, they have never shared even a second of screen time together. The only movie these two have appeared in together is “Raising Arizona” and there are no scenes between her Dot and his Gale. How could this ber
What a treat it was to read this script. I give it an A+ for effort and an A+ for execution.
Director: Joel Coen
Producers: Ethan Coen, Tom Jacobson
Writers: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Casting Director: Ellen Chenoweth
Start Date: June 2003
Location: Los Angeles