Plotting to tunnel into a river-boat casino's dockside vault, a gang of criminals, disguised as purveyors of religious music, fall foul of their gospel-clutching landlady, Marva Munsen (Hall). As they desperately attempt to eradicate this unforeseen foe,
What’s up with the Coens? Are they sick? Are they bored? Has their jazzy jiggery-pokery of antique genres been caught frozen in the headlights of the mainstream? Is it that lumpy industry bureaucracy has gone and forced them to share the director’s credit? We all knew how it worked: Joel was director, Ethan was producer, the films entirely a double-act. No need to meddle.
Whatever the ailment, their latest sleight-of-hand — a chancy remake of Alexander Mackendrick’s delicious 1955 Ealing comedy of sinister charm and murderous intent — arrives strangely off-kilter and lethargic, stuffed with forced jollity and broad mishap. Racial epithets and bowel gags from the makers of Miller’s Crossing? Say it ain’t so.
Of course, even a less-than-spec Coen movie is a good deal better than the aimless, guileless pap cranked out by mere mortals. So there’s no need for panic, with some rich, tasty flesh still to be found on The Ladykillers’ bones.
The relocation of the plot from a dank, post-War King’s Cross to a Mississippi wayside conjures an edgy timelessness as the brothers underpin the contemporary setting with an archaic tinge of Southern Gothic. In place of the fogbound railway tracks we have the river itself, where from a gargoyle-lipped bridge-top the film’s accumulating corpses are deposited on rubbish-totting barges, surely carting those perfidious sinners off to hell.
Tom Hanks’ Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr PhD, leader of this enterprise, has slithered straight out of the pages of a Mark Twain novel, flush with a fey gentlemanly delicacy, mud-brown fangs and a magician’s sprig of a beard. How the superstar rises to the challenge of souring his milky persona, locating whispers of the devil in every dab of his handkerchief and gust of Southern loquaciousness.
The Coens lavish all their pranksters’ delight in knotty word-play on the Professor’s elitist etiquette, as he spouts Edgar Allan Poe verse at whim and, between vile spasms of gurgling laughter, transforms simple sentences into arcane volleys of sibilant prattle: “We must have waffles,” he demands at one particular note of crisis. “We must have waffles, forthwith!” When he plies the term “rococo”, it’s as if Forrest Gump has been possessed by the spirits of Hannibal Lecter and Stuart Hall. To be direct, he is exquisite. Surely even the ghost of Alec Guinness, who added a vampiric splendour to the role in 1955, would doff his shadowy brim.
As Hanks thrills to the task, his directors seem to flounder. Replacing Katie Johnson’s twee, tea-supping angel with the bosomy, black might of god-fearing Irma P. Hall doesn’t work. Independently she’s a voluminous presence, railing against the “hippity-hop” of troublesome youth and eyeing the Professor’s wheedling with an air of distaste, but the joke is lost.
She’s obviously a match for this inept band of misfits — a suitably eccentric gang made up of flat-footed walking gags dubbed Pancake, The General and Lump, and filled by no-name actors straining at the bit. When has a Coen cast ever needed to strain? Marlon Wayans, as the “hippity-hop” inside man, just jerks and cusses as irritatingly as he does everywhere else.
Oh, for a Goodman, a Turturro or a Buscemi to second-fiddle Hanks’ mastery. For when he plots and prevaricates you want to cheer with honest delight — it is only then that the film truly works its wicked ways.
While the Coens find it hard to do wrong, they bit off more they can chew with this Ealing remake.