Once upon a time there was a classic British heist comedy called "The Ladykillers," starring Alec Guinness and a very young Peter Sellers, and it was good. Then there came upon the land the brothers Coen, Joel and Ethan, and they said, yea, we do not give a [expletive] for the original, for it is old, and our audiences are young and hip.
And so they cast Tom Hanks and gave unto him a funny hairdo, and said, Go, be our effete leader in criminal enterprise, round up your motley crew, stretch your character-acting skills. And they cast Irma P. Hall as the Bible-thumping landlady who becomes a monkey wrench in the gang's carefully laid plans, and they cast, too, Marlon who is of the tribe of Wayans, and other funny men and said, Make for us much merriment, for, yea, we could sorely use a hit after "Intolerable Cruelty."
And the movie was once again called "The Ladykillers," and this time it was . . . OK.
In point of fact, "The Ladykillers" is the loosest, silliest, broadest thing the Coens have yet committed to celluloid, and that includes "Raising Arizona," one of this critic's favorites. If you set your expectations low enough there are real laughs to be had, but coming to the Coens with low expectations somehow just feels wrong, and the parts of the movie that feel right are the parts they've done before.
Except for the redoubtable Hall, and except for Hanks, who finally rips off his itchy Jimmy Stewart suit and dives into the role of Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, PhD, a criminal mastermind who oozes fraudulent Southern gentility from every pore. Hanks gives the man a great nervous whinny of a laugh and revels in his love for Edgar Allan Poe, quoting from "To Helen" whenever opportunity presents and wiping away a tear when he gets to the bit about "the weary way-worn wanderer born to his native shore."
In short, Dorr's not the sort to tunnel from his landlady's basement to the counting house of the Bandit Queen, a gambling steamship anchored in the nearby Mississippi. He needs a crew, and so enlists ex-Viet Cong tunnel expert the General (Tzi Ma), demolitions ace Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), "inside man" and self-confessed booty hound Gawain MacSam (Wayans), and Lump (Ryan Hurst), whom we see taking a few too many hits to the head during football games early on (nice helmet-cam there) and who is now, in Dorr's words, "a hooligan, a goon, an ape -- our blunt instrument."
All they have to do is dig from point A to point B while convincing Marva Munson (Hall), the sweet little old church lady who owns the house, that they're actually musicians specializing in late Renaissance chamber pieces. Later on, more murderous designs are made.
The plans don't go off without a hitch, but if you've seen the 1955 original (and you really should someday), you already know that. The fun is, or should be, precisely in the way the enterprise doesn't work, but this being the Coens, it's more amusing just watching the five men knock heads. It's not even that they're different types -- the ludicrously refined Dorr, macho Pancake, and potty-mouthed homeboy Gawain seem as if they're from different centuries.
What keeps "The Ladykillers" from rising above the level of minor entertainment is cheap jokes and overfamiliarity (not to mention some sloppy plotting toward the end). Pancake, it turns out, suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which, bien sur, burbles up when least wanted. The Coens even recycle the old portrait-with-the-changing-expression gag from "Sullivan's Travels" -- it was cartoon humor in 1941 and feels even more inane now.
But, then, the brothers borrowed the title of their 2000 film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" from "Travels," too, and meticulously planned crimes went amok in their first film, "Blood Simple," and their best, "Fargo." Hanks's Dorr is another of their hyperarticulate loser-heroes, on the order of George Clooney's Ulysses McGill in "O Brother." Even without such rehashed elements, "Ladykillers" feels like it's coasting.
Most obviously, the blues-'n'-gospel roots music on the soundtrack harkens back to "O Brother" and its tie-in CD, the massive success of which I'm sure the Coens wouldn't mind repeating. Produced once again by T-Bone Burnett, the score features blissful, incandescent cuts by Blind Willie Johnson, Rose Stone, the Soul Stirrers, Nappy Roots, and others.
Buy the CD. Rent the video.
Written and directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 104 minutes
Rated: R (language, sexual references)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.