Rated R, 104 min. Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Starring Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, Diane Delano.
The Coen brothers’ newest is an odd amalgam of tics and stutters that plays like something of a greatest-hits reel but never seems to jell into a real comedy. That may have something to do with the fact that the film is also a liberal remake of the great Ealing Studios comedy of the same name, released in 1955 with a cast that still makes you tremble with anticipation: Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom, and Peter Sellers, the latter fresh from The Goon Show. As in the original, the Coens’ film revolves around a gang of crooks who utilize the household of a prim old widow (here played by Irma P. Hall) to loot a nearby riverboat casino. Led by Hanks’ studious professor G.H. Dorr (in the role originally created by Guinness) the ragtag quintet derives, fittingly, in a hearse, under the guise of chamber musicians eager to practice in Miss Marva Munson’s earthen-walled basement. The Coens have transposed the film’s locale to the American Deep South in lieu of South London, and so the fact that this particular crew is made up of a multicultural mélange – foul-mouthed firebrand and inside-man Gawain MacSam (Wayans), a Buddhist criminal mastermind called the General (Ma), demolitions expert Garth Pancake (Simmons), musclebound Lump (Hurst), and the floridly extemporaneous professor Dorr – is somewhat less problematic than it would have been in post-war London. Still, The Ladykillers exists in that odd, precise universe the Coens have been exploring for years; it’s the only one I’ve seen in which the sweat stains on workingmen’s overalls are so obviously costume-designed to within an inch of their very lives, or where the sheer precision of a shot of a garbage scow can be as artistically rendered as a Vermeer painting. The Ladykillers is frequently funny, but the comedy doesn’t arrive from the situations in which the characters find themselves, as it did in, say, The Big Lebowski or Raising Arizona, but instead is thrust at the audience in a sort of "Look, Ma! No hands!" self-aware showiness that ends up grating by midfilm. It’s the Coens being flashy instead of truly funny, and much of the problem stems from Hanks’ bizarrely over-the-top performance as professor Dorr. Clad in what looks like Samuel Clemens’ wardrobe, with matching facial hair and orthodontics, he speaks his convoluted lines around what sounds like a mouthful of razors, so precise is his diction. It’s a role informed by everything from Burgess Meredith’s old Batman nemesis the Penguin to the self-conscious acting style you’d expect to find in a high school version of The Music Man, and while it’s frequently hilarious, it’s also just as frequently annoying; it draws you out of the picture’s studied art via its sheer artifice. His recitation of Edgar Allan Poe’s "To Helen" is a masterwork of salivary control, but the real comedy comes from Irma P. Hall, who can only ask "Who’s Helen?" Hall is The Ladykillers’ saving grace and then some. Big-bosomed and homespun to the point of macramé, the Coens, for a change, choose not to make fun of her prim Southern ways and instead make her the heart and soul of what would otherwise be a soulless exercise in craft. It’s not quite enough to raise the film to a par with the directors’ past triumphs in style meeting substance in equal measure (such as The Hudsucker Proxy), but it comes delightfully close.
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