The Ladykillers Joel and Ethan Coen

The Ladykillers Joel and Ethan Coen
The brothers Coen (Joel and Ethan) have yet to make a film that didn’t involve a criminal element of some sort. They also haven’t made any that involve competent criminals — the best laid plans of idiots and their accomplices are what creatively drive this pair. And so it is with The Ladykillers, their latest combination of eccentrics and schemes gone off the rails.

From its first moment, The Ladykillers is delightful in its construction: Tom Hanks plays Professor G.H. Dorr, a Southern gentleman whose manners, speech and dental care are about 100 years past their prime. He recruits a team of misfits to rob a Mississippi riverboat casino, including the fabulous J.K. Simmons (Spiderman) as a tunneller, Tzi Ma is the demolitions expert, Marlon Wayons is the inside man and Ryan Hurst as the muscle. The Professor rents a room in a nearby house, under the guise of practicing renaissance music, and proceeds to tunnel from the basement to the nearby casino’s cash room — all beneath the nose of the lady of the house, Marva Munson (the delightful Irma P. Hall).

Once again, the Coens excel at merging anachronistic elements — Hanks’s elaborate drawl and convoluted vocabulary clashes against Wayans’ stereotypical trash-talking street kid. J.K. Simmons takes what would normally be John Goodman’s role (à la The Big Lebowski), a loyal weirdo who met his girlfriend, Mountain Girl, at a retreat for sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome. And throughout, the Coen’s inject and inter-cut scenes with gospel choirs at Marva’s church — music has become an increasingly important motif in their films.

If you sense a but coming, you’re right. The Ladykillers is a remake of a 1955 film starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, and — aside from the Coen’s uniquely sharp dialogue, particularly mumbled to life by Hanks — follows the plot outline fairly strictly. The Ladykillers has plenty of interesting elements, but especially in its resolution, feels like thin, well-trodden ground.

Having tunnelled through these types of tales with much more surprising and original results (Blood Simple, Fargo), The Ladykillers feels like a Coen brothers knock-off, as if aspiring filmmakers had opened a Coen franchise. Better than most, but not one of the rare gems we’ve come to expect from them. (Dreamworks)