Joel and Ethan Coen may have spent more time in the company of George Clooney (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, “Intolerable Cruelty”) over the past few years but they have, of all people, Tom Hanks to thank for their finest, funniest film since Raising Arizona.
In “The Ladykillers”, the actor sheds his nice guy skin to play a Southern Gothic snake in the grass by the name of Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III, Ph.D. A charlatan professor of Latin and Greek who dresses like Colonel Sanders and talks like the dandified, slightly addled brother of Blanche DuBois, Dorr appears unexpectedly one day at the home of an elderly churchgoing woman (Irma P. Hall) and announces his desire to occupy the room she has for rent.
The home’s root cellar is the spot the professor really has his eye on though. He tells the old lady that he and his friends play period instruments in a Renaissance quintet and require a quiet place in which to rehearse. The truth is they plan to tunnel through her earthen walls into the cash room of a nearby casino called the Bandit Queen. The gang, assembled with the help of a genteel newspaper advertisement, is a classic Coen grabbag of gomers, each seemingly beamed in from a different dimension. Marlon Wayans is the outfit’s inside man, a hip-hop loving janitor with the casino. Ryan Hurst is the empty-headed muscle. Tzi Ma is a tunneling expert who perfected his craft working with the Viet Cong and sports a Hitler mustache. The oddest creation is that of J. K. Simmons, as a gung ho explosives specialist with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
It’s been ten years since Hanks took home an Oscar for his shapeshifting performance in the role of “Forrest Gump”. “The Ladykillers” is a wispier concoction to be sure but Hanks acts up a storm and shows he’s still got the comic stuff. You catch a bit of the Gump drawl here, a little of his deranged “Money Pit” cackle there. Most of all, though, you just sit back and watch a master craftsman having a hell of a time cutting loose, quoting Poe, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. He locates the perfect balance between grandiosity and loose screw lunacy in the delivery of his character’s hysterically florid dialogue.
It isn’t often that things go well for the criminally minded in the cosmos presided over by Joel and Ethan Coen and they don’t go terribly well for the professor and his merry band. In the course of the movie, a dog perishes in a gasmask snafu, a body part is blown off, church groups convene upstairs at inopportune moments and, just as the heist is about to take place, Wayans loses his job. One of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time: Dorr proposes that the janitor attempt to patch things up with his boss by offering him a box of chocolates accompanied by a card expressing a heartfelt sentiment. Another: The scene in which Wayans follows the advice and actually gets rehired.
In the end, of course, the outfit’s biggest problem isn’t the local sheriff (George Wallace), who drops by the place from time to time, boulders that block their tunnel or the casino’s safe. It’s the slightly batty old lady of the house. She eventually uncovers their secret and that opens up a whole new can of conundrums for the gang that couldn’t think straight. The final act is a rapid fire Rube Goldberg affair throughout which-to paraphrase old Edgar Allen-unmerciful disaster follows fast and follows faster and which few filmmakers could pull off with comparable panache.
The picture ranks with the brothers’ best mid level output-not as sublime as “Fargo” or “Barton Fink” but infinitely more satisfying than “The Big Lebowski” or “Intolerable Cruelty”. Based on a classic 1955 Alec Guinness comedy of the same name, it offers irrefutable proof that a remake can be more than a pointless exercise in profiteering. “The Ladykillers” is a loopy hoot and a half and Hanks, all by himself, is worth the price of admission. Losing weight, growing a beard and babbling to a volleyball may win him more points with the public but, if you ask me, that kind of thing is the castaway. This is the keeper.