- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, who now share directing as well as writing and producing credits, claim a career-long affinity with “The Ladykillers,” the last of the great Alec Guinness comedies from England’s Ealing Studio.

Released in 1955, “The Ladykillers” starred Mr. Guinness as the thwarted mastermind of a robbery gang. While planning an armored car heist, the five gang members rendezvous in the picturesque, oddly lopsided Victorian home of a wistful, elderly widow, Katie Johnson’s supremely lovable Mrs. Wilberforce. Ultimately, this oblivious little old lady proves a fatal stumbling block to the felons in her parlor.

The Coens lifted a line from William Rose’s admirably deft and streamlined screenplay for “The Ladykillers” when making their feature debut with “Blood Simple” in 1984. They use the line again in their lamentable 50th anniversary revamp of “The Ladykillers,” restoring the quip to its original context but coarsening and diminishing the source material in many other respects.

Expertly directed by the late Alexander Mackendrick, the original was a witty black comedy, meaning a comedy about predatory characters, whose self-defeating struggles were observed with coldblooded humorous detachment by the filmmakers. The update blurs the old definition by equating black comedy with what was once known as race comedy.

The original London setting is not only transposed but dismantled. There are no cityscapes in this edition of “The Ladykillers.” A small and predominantly black town in Mississippi, Badger City, becomes the apocryphal site for a home located near a riverboat gambling casino, the Bandit Queen. A robbery gang, masterminded here by Tom Hanks as loquacious Southern charlatan Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D., seizes on a house as a base of operations for tunneling into the casino’s bank vault.



Dorr, a bogus professor who likes to recite Poe, takes up lodging with the widowed owner, Irma P. Hall as a ponderous church lady called Marva Munson, in order to supervise the dig from her capacious root cellar. Echoing the prototype, he and the other gang members pretend to be a chamber music quintet that resorts to the cellar for rehearsals.

The eccentric battle of wits between devious tenant and resolute landlady in 1955 is jawed and bludgeoned out of pleasing proportions by the remake, which relies on tiresomely updated elements of obscene banter and slapstick. As the token black gang member, Marlon Wayans is entrusted with the lion’s share of profane insults. As a stolid demolition expert, J.K. Simmons gets the running toilet gag, an affliction called irritable bowel syndrome, which already runs rampant in contemporary movie farce.

The Coens ensnare Mr. Hanks rhetorically with a grandiloquent style of bluster that may account for a reel’s worth of additional running time between original and remake. It also reduces many domestic sequences to a desperately wordy drone. The cliche “I could listen to him for hours” acquires an ominous significance in “The Ladykillers” whenever Mr. Hanks ventures a flowery monologue.

Built along ponderous, dreadnought lines, Irma P. Hall seems better equipped to smother or clobber the sneaks in her house than foil them through the power of innocence and rectitude, the unwitting defense mechanisms of the deceptively dainty and ethereal Englishwoman embodied by Katie Johnson. All the comic delicacy of the original is jettisoned as obsolete baggage in the Coens’ drastic modern makeover of “The Ladykillers.”

There may be something for spectators who are ignorant of the prototype and want to laugh themselves into an IBS convulsion at this Southern-fried cave-in. But it’s no way to treat a lady as durably sterling as Mrs. Wilberforce.

*1/2

TITLE: “The Ladykillers”

RATING: R (Frequent profanity and comic vulgarity; fleeting sexual allusions and racial epithets)

CREDITS: Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Screenplay by the Coens, based on William Rose’s screenplay for the 1955 movie of the same name. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Original musical score by Carter Burwell. Music producers for gospel numbers: T. Bone Burnett and Bill Maxwell

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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