The Coen Brothers have written and directed some of the most original movies of the last two decades, which renders their remake of The Ladykillers exciting and perplexing at once. Ealing Studios' 1955 comedy is as good as it gets, the best work of a happy confluence of filmmakers and actors who churned out a library of classics in the middle of the last century. The unity and economy of the script by William Rose, the witty direction by Alexander Mackendrick, and the brilliant turns by Alec Guinness and the supporting cast can't be improved upon, yet the story invites imitation. Good material is irresistible.
How then to interpret a cinematic masterpiece, retain its novelty and charm, but make it fresh and timely? Joel and Ethan Coen wisely adhered to Rose's foolproof plot, but reimagined the characters and circumstances to suit their quirky sensibilities. In the Ealing version, an odd quintet of bumbling crooks rent a room from a sweet and slightly dotty woman on the pretense of practicing chamber music, with the intent of employing her as an unwitting accomplice in a robbery. The action takes place almost entirely in a dilapidated townhouse near Kings Cross in London, with nearby railroad yards acting as a dumping ground for the periodic disposal of bodies.
The Coens, with their usual genius, move the scenario to Mississippi, morph the demure English landlady into an brassy Southern Baptist, and update the gang of five into a multicultural menage lead by Prof. Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks), expert on the music of the rococo, the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, and the vulnerabilities of the Bandit Queen casino, a gambling boat docked off Natchez. Dorr is betting he can tunnel from the root cellar of his guesthouse to the counting room adjoining the floating casino, relieving it of its weekend winnings.
Using the classifieds, the professor assembles a criminal team befitting the job. The General (Tzi Ma), a Vietnamese immigrant operating a donut shop, knows tunnels. Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), special-effects supervisor in a cut-rate production company, handles demolition. Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), homeboy casino custodian, acts as the inside man. Lump (Ryan Hurst), a singularly uncoordinated football player, provides muscle. The Coens didn't create these characters out of whole cloth--Lump plods in the footsteps of One-Round (Danny Green) of the Ealing version, and Gawain is the hip-hop equivalent of teddy-boy Harry (Peter Sellers)--but these similarities are overpowered by considerable differences, and that is the chief difficulty with the new Ladykillers.
The Coen crooks, to issue a complaint uncommonly leveled at characters in the brothers' movies, are stereotypes. The General is required to swallow his cigarette on a regular basis--a trick worthy of a tunnel rat--and his lack of English means Tzi Ma has no choice but to mug his way through the part. Hurst has an even more thankless role as the dumbest Caucasian ever to trod the gridiron. Lump is so stupid--basically, he hangs around with his mouth open--viewers will suspect the Coens harbor grudges against popular athletes from their high-school days. Wayans fares worst of all, forced to play Gawain as Snoop Puppy, a gold-clad clich who launches into profanity at the slightest provocation.
Simmons' Garth Pancake emerges as the funniest of the lot, in large part because he's given a backstory. A northern transplant who came south to fight for civil rights, he is perpetually peeved at Gawain's stupendous lack of interest in his sacrifice. Unfortunately, the comic tension between these two is defused by the scatological humor rumbling from Pancake's irritable bowels. The perplexing introduction of his granola girlfriend (Diane Delano), who goes by the epithet Mountain Girl, is about as funny as her nickname.
To be sure, Mackendrick had the advantage of working with a peerless cast (Herbert Lom and Cecil Parker joined Guinness, Sellers and Green in the original), but the new Ladykillers suffers from other comparisons. Laden with four-letter words and finger-in-the-nose jokes, not to mention a digital gag that references the risible John Wayne Bobbitt, the Coen production squanders any elegance and innocence lingering from the Ealing production. A half-century ago, audiences delighted in jokes that took five minutes to unfold, as when the British crooks, one by one, leave their instruments to chase after their landlady's parrot, the gramophone playing on, nobody noticing their ruse is exposed. Today, moviegoers are treated to a dog suffocating in a gas mask in a bit of contemporary humor typically mean-spirited and gratuitous.
The Ladykillers would be downright dreary were it not for fine performances by Hanks and Irma P. Hall as Mrs. Munson, reprising the role made famous by Katie Johnson as Mrs. Wilberforce. Despite a mannered laugh and too mellifluous speech, Hanks delivers a divertingly eccentric Southern gothic, ennobled by graceful nods to Guinness' Prof. Marcus. Indeed, the mischievous twinkle in Hanks' eyes, hardening on occasion to an impatient glint, is the closest the film gets to the spirit of the original. Hall, on the other hand, had no choice but to make her role wholly her own, and she does, brilliantly. She fills the screen--not hard to do with so formidable a bosom--a church lady brooking no doubts about the gospel truth.
Speaking of gospel, the new Ladykillers riffs on the ruse at the core of the film, measuring its narrative with a soundtrack ranging from baroque to hip-hop. The Coens famously incorporate music into their movies, but this one rivals O Brother, Where Art Thou? in its exuberance. Also to their credit, they display great ingenuity in transferring plot elements from Kings Cross to Natchez, substituting river barges for the railroad cars that conveniently cart off corpses in the original, to cite one example.
No, The Ladykillers doesn't suffer from lack of wit and imagination. The Coens merely have produced a film that reflects its time, as did the Ealing version 50 years ago. And that's the tragedy of this particular comedy.