- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

Joel and Ethan Coen are about to walk onto a minefield called Ealing Studios. Their lead commando: Tom Hanks. Ealing, the London studio that straddled prewar and postwar England, signifies a brand of sly, rarefied comedy that, by virtue of its oh-so-Englishness, sends film connoisseurs cowering into fetal Anglophilia.

Vanity Fair magazine recently included “Ealing” on its list of must-know buzzwords to understand the vocabulary of snob critics.

“We’re right on time,” says Joel. “We’re right in there with the zeitgeist.”

What the brothers Coen have done is remake “The Ladykillers,” a 1955 Ealing artifact that starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, two of England’s most beloved practitioners of high drollery and smart slapstick.

“One of the appealing things about doing a remake of a venerated comedy,” says Ethan, “is that it horrifies people — especially British people.”

“You know, I never thought of that,” Mr. Hanks says. “That’s gonna be fun.”

Fun is the imperative in this Ritz-Carlton Hotel suite, where Mr. Hanks is keeping watch over the Coen brothers — Joel is 49, Ethan 46 — as they drink mass quantities of coffee and English tea.

Here, Mr. Hanks, 47, is accepted as an honorary brother. The trio — A-plus-list actor and “two-headed director” of such modern classics as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Fargo” and “Raising Arizona” — converse with one another off-topic, catching up on insidery lore, intermittently re-engaging “Ladykillers” promotion-speak.

Mr. Hanks: “Didn’t you guys want to do something on Kafka at some point? Didn’t I read a script on Kafka?”

The Coen brothers, in unison: “No.”

Joel: “Steve Soderbergh did.”

Mr. Hanks: “I know there was that, but I think I read something else of yours, like three and a half years ago.”

Ethan: “When we’re bored” —

— “Yeah,” says Joel, “when we’re writing, we sometimes decide to take a Kafka break.”

Uproarious laughter, punctuated by Ethan’s half-hiccup, half-squeak of a chortle.

With their “Ladykillers” redo, the Coens very definitely did not start from a position of reverence. Neither did Mr. Hanks. In fact, says the latter, he’s hard-pressed to remember if he’s ever seen an Ealing comedy all the way through. Maybe “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” Yes, he’s seen all of “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”

But while he’s read about “The Ladykillers,” Mr. Hanks says he “specifically stayed away from” viewing the caper film, in which the late Mr. Guinness heads a pack of bumbling brigands as they exploit a sweet, doddering old English lady in an armored-car heist.

“I didn’t look at the original or try to do an Alec Guinness-y kind of thing,” he says, matter-of-factly.

As they explain it, the Coens took the spine of the original “Ladykillers,” written by William Rose (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”), and completely retooled it.

First, they set it in the South, in Mississippi, as they did with the Homeric Odyssey of “O Brother.” Next, they started creating characters from scratch. The doddering English tea-lady became the black, brickhouse Southern Baptist church lady Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall).

The role of Alec Guinness was filled by Mr. Hanks’ Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III, a cream-suited, fast-talking charlatan.

Joel and Ethan created a dimwit character based roughly on one of the original “Ladykillers”; the rest were brand new: Marlon Wayans’ contemporary hip-hopper; J.K. Simmons’ demolition man with a Northeastern social conscience; Tzi Ma’s South Vietnamese tunnel rat.

All are gathered in Marva Munson’s root cellar, masquerading as late classical musicians, in prime striking position to raid the underground cash vault of a riverboat casino.

The Coens were originally hired only as writers; their friend and sometime cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld was slated to direct “The Ladykillers.” That didn’t work out, and eventually the Coens happily took on the job of directing.

Having been told, however, during the writing that their job would end when the script was finished, the Coens weren’t thinking of the brilliant stock company of Coen journeymen and journeywomen: John Goodman, John Turturro, Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand, et al.

“We didn’t write specific parts for many of those actors as we commonly do, not thinking we were gonna make the movie,” Ethan says. “So we sort of started with a mental clean slate.”

“Frequently, when we’re sitting around writing a story,” Joel says, “we literally will think, ‘Well, let’s make John Turturro an Hispanic pedophile.’”

Mr. Hanks guffaws. Ethan squeaks.

“That just didn’t happen here,” Joel says, holding back laughs himself.

The clean-slate game of catch-up provided the perfect chance to cast Tom Hanks, whom they’d long admired.

The feeling was mutual: “They’ve always been able to make movies that are completely unpredictable,” Mr. Hanks says of the Coen brothers. “Look, that’s priceless for me. They’ve always been on my list of ‘Who would you like to work for?’”

The collective goal of Coens & Hanks? Simple: Toss film-geek expectations to the wind, right along with hypersensitive identity politics.

Asked whether the broad ethnic caricatures of “The Ladykillers” might offend, Mr. Hanks and the Coens are adamant.

Says Ethan, “You can’t be racially-ethnically specific without offending somebody, so you gotta decide: Either you’re gonna have no ethnic characters or you’re not gonna give a [fill-in-the-bracket].”

Joel says no one in “The Ladykillers” is meant to be representational. “All you’re trying to do, really, is what any writer does — make the characters as specific as possible,” he says.

“Let’s play the studio game,” Mr. Hanks adds. “‘How many African-Americans in positive roles do we have in the film?’”

“We give very, very little thought to whether or not something may be less politically correct in a certain context,” Joel says. “We never have. There’s always gonna be somebody who gets their knickers in a twist about something.”

Toying with film-snob piety toward Ealing would twist plenty of knickers, but the Coens and Mr. Hanks weren’t content to stop there. They’re equal opportunity satirists.

Enfolded in the “Ladykillers” remake is a recurring joke about South Carolina’s famously reactionary college, Bob Jones University.

Take it away, boys.

“There’s something funny about Bob Jones University,” says Joel.

“Why not ‘Robert Jones University’?” seconds Ethan.

“Would you go to ‘Bob Jones Airlines’?”cracks Mr. Hanks. “It should be ‘Bob Jones’ Waffle and Pancakes.’”

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