reviewed by Steve Sailer
The American Conservative, April 12, 2004
"The Ladykillers" was the last Alec Guinness comedy from England's famed Ealing Studios, although the company's history would trace a more satisfying arc if it had been the first. A black comedy about a gang whose big heist is uncovered by their sweet old landlady who insists they return the money, the 1955 "Ladykillers" was expertly done, but it was also rather slight and not terribly funny. It would have made an admirable warm-up to Ealing's 1949 masterpiece "Kind Hearts and Coronets," in which Sir Alec famously played all eight murder victims, but coming six years later, "The Ladykillers" seemed more like an anticlimax.
So, the news was welcome that the inventive Coen Brothers were remaking "The Ladykillers" with the reliable Tom Hanks in Guinness' role as the head crook. The result, though, while a bit better than the original, is not quite up to the Coens' potential.
The Coens offer us the usual multicultural gang, something that exists mostly in movies, but they are well aware of how silly it is. Tzi Ma stands out as The General, a South Vietnamese donut shop owner with a Hitler moustache and expertise at tunneling into the Mississippi riverboat casino's vault. Small but frighteningly stony, he seems more North than South Vietnamese. If we'd had more allies that ferocious, we would have won the war.
Marlon Wayans ("Scary Movie") takes the young Peter Sellers' role as a gun-toting henchman, but that's no loss because most of Sellers' lines were chopped out of the original. Offscreen, Sellers learned much working with his idol Guinness, but onscreen, the future master of multiple roles ("Dr. Strangelove") was forgettable.
The writers-directors reimagine the widow as a black Southern Baptist church lady defending, with her lace doilies and non-alcoholic lemonade, old-fashioned respectability against the "hippity-hop music" that has lured Wayans' character off the path of righteousness. It's an excellent conceit, in part because it lets a white audience (and the Coens' fans are almost all white) witness the sizable generation and gender gap in the black community between grandmothers and grandsons.
Although Hanks gets top billing, the landlady, played by the redoubtable Irma P. Hall, is the audience's surrogate. A Texas schoolteacher for 27 years, Hall (first noticed as the blind aunt in 1996's "A Family Thing," where she outshone both Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones) is creeping up on stardom at age 66. She energetically embodies the formidable dignity and queenliness that many stout old black ladies possess. She's large and in charge.
For a dozen years, Tom Hanks has been the regular guy with whom the whole world identifies. Beginning with his second banana role in "Catch Me If You Can," however, he seems to be prudently easing himself into character leads. (Audiences prefer their leading men to look about 35, and Hanks is now 47.) Contrasting his openness with the invisibility of Guinness, whom Peter Ustinov called a "poet of anonymity," is a challenge for Hanks, but he gets lots of practice daily due to his dedication to living a normal life with his family without hovering bodyguards or entourage. I ran into Hanks at the crowded L.A. Auto Show in January, where he blended into the crowd so self-effacingly that many attendees never noticed they were standing next to the most respected movie star in the world.
The Coens -- having memorably limned Northern "you bet" laconicity in "Fargo" and Southern Foghorn Leghorn verbosity in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" -- create another post-Confederate conman. Dressed like Tom Wolfe in a cream-colored linen suit and cape, Hanks' Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III, Ph.D. is a fey devotee of dead languages who dazzles his sermon-loving landlady with rhetoric.
Unfortunately, Hanks' Professor isn't quite as delightful as George Clooney's Ulysses Everett McGill in "O Brother." The problem is not with Hanks' performance, but with the Coens' lines, which just aren't as amusing as you'd expect from them.
Further, the brothers' script denies us one of the pleasures of con man movies: watching an actor put his mask on and off. Frustratingly, the persona Hanks presents to the widow he's duping is no different from the one he shows the gang he's directing.
As expected, the Coens deliver a terrific gospel-based soundtrack. Stick around through the credits for a jaw-dropping church choir performance -- this show's definitely not over 'til the fat lady sings.
Rated R for bad language, including sexual references.