A motley gang of thieves, unconvincingly disguised as amateur classical musicians, are confounded in their caper by the daft old lady who rents their criminal mastermind his room. Produced in 1955 at Britain’s old Ealing Studios, Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers was eccentric, deft, and extremely funny. The Coen brothers’ remake is none of these things: The opening image of a gargoyle watching a garbage scow is more or less a metaphor for this movie, which can’t even honestly be called The Timekiller.
Transposed from suburban London to a version of Biloxi, Mississippi, The Lady- killers pits a far less sinister mastermind, the grandiloquent Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks) against a far more obviously formidable landlady. God-fearing Marva Munson (Soul Food matriarch Irma P. Hall) is an irascible widow who complains to the cops about “hippity-hop” music and is so clueless that she takes pride in tithing herself to support Bob Jones University. (Like George W. Bush, she’s supposed to be oblivious to the bible school’s racist history.) Suspicious as Mrs. Munson is, it’s a minor miracle that she tolerates the unctuous Dorr for a minute—let alone his band of losers.
Playing a role that allowed Alec Guinness, tricked out with repulsively long teeth, to exude a certain wicked charm while seeming as creepy as silent-screen contortionist Lon Chaney, Hanks is at once strenuously laid back and bizarrely Shakespearean, given to mellifluously highfalutin raps and a wheezy giggle. The role affords him a chance to stretch, but it’s hardly a Meryl Streep-style tour de force. For all his satanic glower, Hanks is not the slightest bit menacing. As the gang’s inside man and resident motormouth, TV star Marlon Wayans brings a bit of sitcom sambo geste to the proceedings, particularly when mixing it up with J.K. Simmons’s idiotic handyman. Tzi Ma’s volatile, if taciturn, former Vietnamese general and Ryan Hurst’s brain-damaged former football player round out the miscreant crew but add little to the mix. Basically, this is a character comedy without characters.
The original Ladykillers spoofed a then current cycle of Hollywood heists and movies wherein honest citizens were terrorized by dangerous hoodlums. Its originality lay in its capacity to increase the laughs as the body count mounted. Perhaps queasy about a situation that involves white men and their minstrel assistant attempting to do away with an elderly black woman, the Coens are uncharacteristically restrained. Indeed, given that the crime comedy is their preferred genre, The Ladykillers is remarkable mainly for its timidity. (That the movie has already been announced as part of the official selection at Cannes does not bode well for the festival.)
The Coen version feels more than a bit desperate in its padded backstories and tediously distended caper details—not to mention its halfhearted yet insistent attempt to woo the audience with lame castration and diarrhea gags. (It’s not the lady that’s murdered, but The Ladykillers.) Because the plot takes forever to get in gear, the balletic aspect of the war between the old lady and the gang that gave the Mackendrick original its offbeat timing is completely lost. Instead, there’s the mind-numbing oompah rhythm of every gag telegraphed and every joke pounded into the ground. In the visual equivalent of a laugh track, the Coens use the portrait of the late Mr. Munson to comment on each new misadventure.
The flat expanse of Coen-land is intermittently enlivened with a few rousing gospel interludes. There’s not even the ersatz regionalism of O Brother Where Art Thou?, but the strategic deployment of incidental music ranging from Blind Willie Johnson to Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers suggests that the filmmakers’ real investment is in the soundtrack CD.