The Coen brothers attracted the auteur-groupies right from their first few pictures–Blood Simple (mock noir thriller), Raising Arizona (funky comedy), and Miller’s Crossing (ultra-violent gangster story). In all they seemed like prodigies of style, with a detachment and self-referential irony redolent of late 20th century post-modernism, laced with their own not-to-be-denied originality. Fargo may be their best effort to date, a genuinely witty mixture of farce and crime. (O Brother, Where Art Thou? has its admirers, but surely would have been thin gruel without the sensational soundtrack to drive it along its meandering way.)
Now the Coens have joined the ranks of the re-makers, basing The Ladykillers on William Rose’s Academy award nominated screenplay for the 1955 film of the same name that starred Alec Guinness in his considerable prime. The broad outline of the story is retained–a group of bumbling criminals, led by a "professor" of intellectual pretension, require the use of the home of an old lady in order to carry out their grand plan for a heist. The old lady doesn’t grasp what’s going on, but her independent and virtuous ways complicate things for the crooks.
The original version of The Ladykillers was dark comedy, with Guinness at his hysterical best supported by the likes of veteran Herbert Lom and then very young Peter Sellars. The Coen’s new telling, with its setting shifted to the American South,is neither as dark nor as funny as the original, despite a tour de force performance in the lead by Tom Hanks (Catch Me If You Can, Road to Perdition). His Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III, Ph.D. is a foppish pettyfogger, taken to affectedly quoting Poe and frequently emitting an escalating, breathy laugh that seems about to run dangerously out of control. It’s a variation on a type–the somewhat fey, southern literary gentleman–but here, of course, disguising motives of pure larceny
Once the character is established, though, the Coens fail to give Dorr sufficient development and change to keep him interesting. They surround him with a gang in which each member personifies just one joke and the jokes run thin quickly. The best of the lot is Marlon Wayans (Scary Movie 2, Requiem for a Dream) as Gawain MacSam, the inside man, personifying the profane, fast-talking Black street hustler. MacSam is the only character in the film who generates real energy and Wayans deservedly gains more than his share of the laughs.
Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) is the technical wizard in the group, with a droopy mustache and the look of an Australian ranger, but none-too-bright, of course, and suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, allowing for repeated jokes more expected of the Farrellys than of the Coens. Tzi Ma plays a Vietnamese general who says practically nothing and whose main trick is to hide a lit cigarette inside his mouth, a trick the Coens deemed sufficiently amusing to repeat several times. Ryan Hurst gets little to do as Lump Hudson, a stereotype of the dumb football jock.
Irma P. Hall (Beloved) is endearing as Marva Munson, a bow-legged, righteous lady in white gloves, cotton print dresses and straw hats, who sends a check for $5 every month to Bob Jones University, believing it to be the very essence of charitability. She sums up her philosophy saying, "There are two kinds of people in the world–those who got the piles and those who are gonna get ’em." Irma, as the proper foil to the inept crooks, provides sufficient excuse for the Coens to insert church scenes where infectious gospel music gets the film in gear again as its droopy pacing and shortage of wit threaten to drag it down to irremediable sluggishness.