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'Ladykillers' has its charms

The Coen brothers' latest is a good movie with good performances, certainly worth seeing, but they can do better.

Published March 25, 2004

[Photo: Touchstone Pictures]
When Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall) realizes there’s something fishy about her boarders, the felonious five, including Gawain (Marlon Wayans, right), decide to do her in.

  Then and now
The 1955 version of The Ladykillers, starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, is considered one of the best comedies produced by London's fabled Ealing Studios.
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O Coen brothers, where art thou? Where is that fraternally singular vision jammed with tricky camera moves, oddball danger and finely crafted dialogue begging to be memorized? We could write off Intolerable Cruelty as a project that a big studio shoved upon you, but why are you former Hollywood outsiders so chummy with those sharp-dressed carnival barkers?

And now, after The Man Who Wasn't There turned out to be the entire audience, after O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowski proved you still have a giddy edge, Joel and Ethan Coen turn their prodigious talents to (drum roll, please) a remake.

The Ladykillers is a not-so-daring variation on 1955's British classic starring Alec Guinness as a weird professor masterminding a robbery from within the home of an unsuspecting senior citizen. Like many great British actors, Guinness didn't mind hamming it up, reaching back to his stage training to play to the rafters with only a camera lens before him. That kind of outlandish performance doesn't work easily in today's more intimate relationship between audience and screen.

But Tom Hanks tries hard. Looking like Col. Sanders and sounding like Foghorn Leghorn, Hanks leads The Ladykillers from foggy London to moss-draped Saucier, Miss.

As Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III, Ph.D., Hanks delivers a finely crazed performance, his loosest since the last time he romanced Meg Ryan onscreen. It just doesn't seem to fit in the Coens' circumstances; little else in The Ladykillers matches that craziness until the film's marvelously dark climax.

Not that this is a bad movie. The Deep South setting is superbly conveyed, partly through rousing gospel music. But even that strength takes viewers back to O Brother, Where Art Thou's breakthrough old-time country music soundtrack, which was used more effectively. The decency of Saucier's citizens is a fun contrast to the thieves at work. But those crooks are so eccentric, so unusual for Saucier, that we wonder how they could avoid detection or at least suspicion. The British gang was more convincing in its infiltration.

And the Coen brothers do love writing colorful double talk, most of it pouring from Hanks' mouth in torrents of molasses-soaked deception. Speaking much more directly - and also funny in a profane fashion - is Marlon Wayans as Gawain MacSam, the inside man working on the riverboat casino Professor Dorr plans to rob. The other gang members aren't as successful: Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) could be Cliff Claven's cousin with his misplaced know-it-all confidence. Tunneling expert the General (Tzi Ma) doesn't say much. Muscle man Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst) can barely form consonants.

On the other hand, Irma P. Hall is wonderful as Mrs. Munson, a Bible-toting widow whose innocent instincts tell her something is wrong about the men supposedly rehearsing classical music in her root cellar. From her first appearance at City Hall complaining about the "hippity-hop" music blasting from a neighbor's new boombox, Hall creates a memorable character. Her bowed legs are the only crooked thing about Mrs. Munson, making her a sharp contrast to her shady boarders. She's too sweet to be exploited and the criminals are too affable to pull against, creating a conflict of our interests that blunts the impact of both crime and punishment.

Along the way, the Coen brothers sneak in a few nicely twisted moments to remind us of their talent. Garth's introduction on the set of a commercial when he dumbly endangers a dog leads to a very funny grossout. Mrs. Munson's cat, Pickles, becomes a key player, putting a final grisly touch on that impressive wrapup.

Then again, the Coens occasionally get too wrapped up in the moments they're creating. The church sequences run too long for too little purpose other than the rapturous music. Lump's introduction, using a helmet-cam to show how hard and how many times he got hit on a football field, chews up precious screen time after his dimness has been established. Gawain has a couple of outbursts too many. But we take the bad with the good with the Coens, expecting something marvelous to follow.

The Ladykillers doesn't entirely disappoint on that count, but it also doesn't seem like a Coen brothers film to be watched again and again to catch what you missed while laughing. There's enough that's good about the film to recommend it, yet not enough to commend it to memory. After taking off for two movies using other people's ideas, it's time for the Coens to follow their own warped muses again.

The Ladykillers

Grade: B

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, George Wallace, Stephen Root

Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, based on a screenplay by William Rose

Rating: R; harsh profanity, brief violence

Running time: 108 min.

[Last modified March 24, 2004, 09:59:18]

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