The souffle falls a little flat in “The Ladykillers,” a Coen brothers black comedy in which the humor seems arch and narrative momentum doesn’t kick in until the final third. Returning to the Deep South for the first time since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, their biggest domestic hit, the Coens don’t hit paydirt this time around, although presence of that B.O. Mr. Reliable, Tom Hanks, at the top of the cast will get pic off to a good commercial start March 26. Overseas, where the Coens’ latest, “Intolerable Cruelty,” more than doubled its domestic haul, film is due to kick off at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea to try to remake the wry 1955 Ealing comedy, written by William Rose and directed by Alexander Mackendrick, about an odd gang of robbers who hole up in the home of a little old lady while executing their scheme. And there would seem to be plenty of promise in the Coens’ decision to transplant the yarn to small-town Mississippi and turn the lady into a not so little black Baptist widow with a strong nose for immorality.
But after a nifty opening scene in which Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) marches into the sleepy local police station to complain about the “hippity-hop” music a neighbor is playing on his new blaster, the film’s tone shortly begins to feel off — a sense setting in that, in this instance, the brothers’ stylized dialogue isn’t quite hitting the accustomed high mark.
Introducing himself as a classics professor with expertise in Latin and Ancient Greek, Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. (Hanks), is as eccentric and as highfalutin as his name. Goateed and bedecked with a permanent bow-tie and creamy caped suit that mark him as a man steeped in a distant age, Dorr speaks in an elaborate, rarified, highly literary manner that gives Hanks paragraphs of dialogue to recite and is not unamusing if you follow its circumlocutions carefully.
Dorr takes a room in Marva’s comfortable old house, but spends most of his time in the cellar with an “ensemble” that supposedly specializes in playing “late Renaissance” music. In fact, this is Dorr’s criminal band, and the Coens (Ethan explicitly shares directorial credit with Joel here for the first time) devote considerable attention and invention to providing each member with his own mirthful intro.
Gawain (Marlon Wayans) is the streetwise, vulgarity-spewing “inside man” who takes a janitorial job aboard a floating casino; Pancake (J.K. Simmons) is a hapless technician assigned to setting the explosives for the break-in; Lump (Ryan Hurst) is the inarticulate “muscle” responsible for digging a tunnel from Marva’s basement to the casino office, and the General (Tzi Ma) is a former South Vietnamese officer whose logistical expertise supposedly makes up for his lack of words.
With so much time spent on bringing the characters into the mix and covering the tracks of their project — with time out for visits to Marva’s church for no other reason than to sample the lusty gospel singing — “The Ladykillers” has trouble gathering dramatic momentum, reducing it to the level of a picaresque Southern curio.
Gang’s successful completion of its mission comes at the one-hour mark, and Dorr characteristically celebrates the occasion with his own variation on a famous speech from Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” From then on, however, it’s nothing but trouble for the quintet, as Marva discovers the truth, forcing Dorr, after much verbal tap-dancing, to offer her a full share of the $1.6 million haul. It’s when the righteous Marva refuses the bribe that pic’s title comes into focus, with results that backfire in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the 49-year-old British gem.
The original was centered upon one of Alec Guinness’ most breathtakingly eccentric performances, one marked physically by the character’s outrageously bad teeth. In a return to comedy after a considerable sabbatical, Hanks comports himself skillfully, obviously relishing Dorr’s distinctive oddities and rhetorical flights, and putting his own trademark on the role with an irrepressible giggle that overcomes him at peak moments of enthusiasm. But like the film itself, the performance doesn’t take off and soar, and there are moments when Dorr’s long-windedness frankly becomes tiresome.
Part of the film’s problem may stem from the characters’ wildly different manners of speech, and from the fact that they simply don’t mesh. Contrasting with Dorr’s windy, courtly manner are Gawain’s impudent, obscenity-laced urbanspeak, Pancake’s straight-laced professionalese, Lump’s inexpressive grunting, and the General’s loaded minimalism. Preston Sturges, a Hollywood standard-bearer when it comes to creating distinctive voices for characters — and one of the Coens’ heroes — could stir this sort of stew, but the brothers don’t entirely manage it this time.
And then there’s Marva. Rightly written to be sharper and more of a stand-up character than Katie Johnson’s Mrs. Wilberforce in the original, she is initially presented as the sort of obstinate mama who’s not about to take no guff from no one. Marva, still living in the shadow of her late husband, whose portrait constantly peers down at her from the living room wall, recedes a bit when she allows the wool to be pulled over her eyes, only to emerge again in the late-going. Hall makes the woman constantly engaging, even if she only reaches the peak of comic outrage when she gives the smart-mouthed Gawain some convincing wallops upside the head.
Production values are up to the Coens’ usual impeccable standards. Roger Deakins’ lensing is exquisitely composed and atmospheric, especially in his shots of a statue-laden bridge that comes to play a crucial role in the proceedings. Carter Burwell’s original score takes a back seat to the extensive gospel selections that grace the soundtrack, albeit to less decisive and organic effect than the music selections played in “O Brother.”