(Originally published in Rocky Mountain Bullhorn)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s finest films abound with whimsy and larger-than-life kookiness, but misanthropic wit just isn’t their forte. With The Ladykillers, an update of the 1955 black comedy classic that starred Alec Guinness as a creepy criminal genius, the writing/directing duo attempt to enliven their skewed absurdity with a touch of unsentimental malice, and the end result is as flat as a deflated whoopee cushion. The Coens’ latest wants to be a colorful carnival ride brimming with characters who are lovable precisely because of their unrepentant despicableness. Instead, it’s a lukewarm live-action Loony Tunes cartoon.
In the Guinness role, Tom Hanks acquits himself nicely as Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III, a debonair southern gentleman whose snow-white suit, bushy goatee, affected scholarly elocution and rapid-fire staccato chuckle make him an outlandish hybrid of Foghorn Leghorn and Colonel Sanders. Dorr rents a room in the home of devout elderly widow Marva Munson (a boisterous Irma P. Hall) while professing to be the leader of a “church music” quintet, but the erudite stranger’s true aspirations are wholeheartedly criminal. With a gang of crooked cohorts sporting Hanna Barberra-ish names – including short-tempered thug Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), explosives expert and irritable bowel syndrome-sufferer Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), dunderheaded football player Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst), and Chinese military psycho The General (Tzi Ma) – Hanks’ ringleader sets about burrowing his way from Munson’s basement into a casino vault full of millions. However, as befitting a crime perpetrated by incompetent idiots, things go terribly awry. When Munson discovers her houseguests’ devious plot and threatens to inform the police, the gang’s talk of robbery soon morphs into a discussion of homicide.
As with last year’s uneven Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers sporadically rises to humorous heights, such as when Hanks – after hiding under a bed to avoid meeting the town sheriff – explains to a perplexed Munson, “You know how us academics love wedging ourselves into confined spaces.” Yet the Coens’ unique off-kilter sensibilities are an uncomfortable match for the film’s increasingly sinister narrative, and thus recurrent bits such as Wayans and Simmons’ foul-mouthed arguments seem both limp and out-of-place. By the filmmakers’ umpteenth cut-away to a portrait of Munson’s deceased husband (which, in a lame gag stolen from countless Scooby-Doo episodes, changes expressions depending on the thieves’ antics), one realizes there’s nothing to this farce except for some cuddly-cute caricatures and a handful of routine slapstick stunts. The central heist is gussied up with energetic gospel music, and regular Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins bestows the film’s Mississippi milieu with a picturesque storybook sparkle. But like the floating trash barges that figure prominently in the film’s murderous finale, this uninspired remake secretes the stench of a good thing gone sour.