The Coen brothers take a massive Hollywood home-run swing with their latest, “The Ladykillers,” and you can almost hear the sound of whiffing air while you’re watching the film. If you thought the Coens were getting a bit off track with “Intolerable Cruelty” — a decent but fairly rote star-vehicle/romantic comedy — “The Ladykillers” is where they jump the rails.
First off, it’s a remake of the 1955 classic that paired Alec Guinness across Peter Sellars. Second, it’s a TOM HANKS film, no doubt about that in the billing. While neither of these things is necessarily the kiss of death, they are cause for concern: Hollywood remakes are not generally known for improving on the originals, while Hanks hasn’t exactly been lighting the screen on fire lately, with his ponderous gravitas in “Road to Perdition” and his forgettable G-Man in “Catch me if you Can.”
On the plus side, the Coens penned the script — something they didn’t do with “Intolerable Cruelty” — and they are true fans of the original (they even paid a little homage to it in their debut, “Blood Simple”). The premise from the original has largely remained the same — band of bumbling criminal geniuses find their best-laid plans foiled by a little old lady — but the Coens move it to a Deep South setting, giving them the opportunity to throw in a rousing gospel soundtrack, and further mine the territory that brought them huge success with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
“The Ladykillers” mostly tries to find its humor in its incompatible characters (though it’s not above toilet humor as well). There’s old Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall), a God-fearing, stern-faced widow. Built like a brick outhouse and with a temper to match, we first meet Mrs. Munson as she’s browbeating the local sheriff into doing something about her young neighbor who’s blasting “that hippity-hop music” on his stereo. “And do you know what they call colored people in that music?” she asks the sheriff, aghast.
Her nemesis arrives in the form of Hanks as Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. (“Fudd?” asks Mrs. Munson), a smooth-talking classics professor who’s interested in the widow’s room for rent. Munson’s charmed, albeit somewhat bewildered, by the professor’s obsequious babble, and agrees to rent him the room, provided he’s quiet.
What she doesn’t know is that Dorr is the cunning leader of a band of criminals determined to rob the vault of a nearby casino, and who intend to tunnel into the premises from Mrs. Munson’s basement. Dorr convinces her that his “friends” are a bunch of Renaissance music aficionados, and that their band is practicing in her cellar, a ruse that leads to predictably half-baked attempts to disguise their tunneling every time Mrs. Munson appears with a plate of cookies.
The gang is the usual bunch of comic buffoons: There’s trash-talking Gawain (Marlon Wayans), the inside man, working as a janitor at the casino; self-righteous demolitions expert Pancake (J.K. Simmons), whose irritable-bowel syndrome kicks in at the most inopportune moments; silent tunnel expert The General (Tzi Ma), a former officer in the South Vietnamese Army; and Lump (Ryan Hurst), the gang’s muscle, a dunce too slow to even succeed as a football linebacker.
Be thankful for their presence, though. These walking gags pretty much save the film from a phenomenally unfunny and disastrously mispitched performance by Hanks. Hanks is the kind of A-list Hollywood actor the Coens have never had access to until recently, and it feels like they didn’t have the gumption to step in during the shooting to offer some advice. Either that, or they’ve been hitting the weed again and actually thought he was funny. Either way, this is one of those prima-donna swan dives that was just crying out for someone to yell “Cut!”
Sporting a goatee, bow tie, fake teeth and a “gentlemanly” Southern drawl, Hanks seems to think he can pull a Peter Sellars and reinvent himself as a ridiculously over-the-top caricature. He comes up with annoying, actorly affectations like a sniveling little laugh and endless hand-wringing, but he lacks Sellars’ loose-limbed klutziness and knack for physical comedy. Instead, he lets it rip with the verbal diarrhea, finding six ways to Sunday to say the simplest thing. Problem is, very little of it’s worth a chuckle, and the film only shines when he shuts up. (Contrast this with George Clooney in “O Brother.”)
There are, in fact, many laugh-out-loud bits tucked away in here, from Gawain’s dirty diatribe as he bird-dogs an amply hipped casino customer (“That wasn’t an ass, that was literature!” he explains to his irate boss) to the gang’s hopelessly inept attempts to whack Mrs. Munson.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography is as evocative as always, while the T Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack includes some manic gospel gems. But stack it all up, and you’ve still got the weight of Hanks tipping the scale below three stars.
The Coen brothers are certainly skilled at comedy (see “The Big Lebowski,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” or even “Fargo”), but the closer they get to the mainstream, the more they seem to be losing the loopy, idiosyncratic touches that made their early films so strong. “The Ladykillers” doesn’t bode well for the future, especially if the rumors are true that director Joel and producer Ethan Coen will be going their separate ways. As The Dude in “The Big Lebowski” would say, “That’s a bummer.”
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