Deadly Dull

Coen brothers butcher subtle humor in their slapstick, slapdash remake of 'Ladykillers.' It's a crime.


March 26, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC



You can tell when the comedy cord snaps in a Hollywood superstar. For those who value art over all-American iconography, it's not a pretty sight.

That horrible snap happened to Tom Hanks when he got all gooey and noble in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan. There hadn't been anything like it since Jack Lemmon lost his euphoria and won accolades for playing serious middle-class schlubs in films such as Save the Tiger.

Actors who have a genius for comic invention and gaiety often lose that notoriously elusive genius when they neglect it. They may later develop into formidable actors, but Lemmon displayed mature power only intermittently, and Hanks has become an icon simply by snuggling up to America's heartstrings.

In the awful new Coen brothers' remake of the scintillating British black comedy The Ladykillers (1955), Hanks tries his hand at a king-size heartless comic role, and flubs it terribly. He looks slack and pasty and, what's worse, sounds slack and pasty. As an eccentric Southern criminal mastermind posing as a classics professor and early-music lover, he tries to run verbal rings around a redoubtable and highly religious African-American widow (Irma P. Hall), whose home he uses as his base.

But his verbal curlicues are as tiring as Dennis Miller's. When he recites Edgar Allan Poe to Hall and her fellow widows and matrons, it's unbelievable and condescending to think he razzle-dazzles them - he turns ringing verse into white noise. His incessant dulcet murmur affected me the way Bob Costas' super-smooth all-knowingness once affected Mel Brooks: It just about put me to sleep.

Hanks has siphoned all his energy into tics like a mirthless incisor-baring laugh, and there's not much vitality left - his eyes are bright yet glassy, like cheap marbles.

What's doubly sad is that only a vintage Hanks comedy performance out of Bosom Buddies, Splash or Turner and Hooch could have saved this movie. The Coen brothers dumb down a classic character-built farce with gags about irritable bowel syndrome and monophonic stereotypes who aren't even strong enough to carry their gags to the finish line.

The Ladykillers follows the plot of the original, transferring the action from 1955 London to a present-day Mississippi town and localizing the heist from an armored car and a railroad terminal to a riverboat casino. The British film boasted a brilliant Addams Family of a gang, led by the superbly dissembling Alec Guinness but also including Herbert Lom, Cecil Parker, Peter Sellers and Danny Green. The Coens substitute Hanks' longwinded pseudo-academic, a terse and lethal Asian general (Tzi Ma), a trash-talking inside man (Marlon Wayans), a luggish football player (Ryan Hurst), and a transplanted Scranton munitions expert (J.K. Simmons) with a forced civil-rights past and a gal named Mountain Girl (Diane Delano).

The comedy should emerge from the friction between two fictions. The gang presents the fiction that they're "late-Renaissance" musicians; the landlady lives the fiction that she's a wise old woman in touch with the spirit of her husband.

The Coens paint their cartoon shapes so broadly and put them through such sweat-inducing exertions that they ruin the concept's oddball symmetry. And for what? The tunnel-into-the-casino plan is too basic. It resembles the feeble pratfalls in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks, itself inspired by a vastly superior Italian farce, Big Deal on Madonna Street. Later, when the gang members try to knock off the landlady because she knows too much, the slapstick mayhem never evolves into the hilarious homicide ballet that made the '55 farce unique.

Nearly everything about the accidental murders that do occur in this film is arbitrary and laborious. The root cellar in the widow's house should be a perfect spot for murder and for camouflage but the Coen brothers don't properly exploit it - the crooks in this movie must drive to their corpse-disposal grounds. (In the British film, the railroad yard was in the lady's back yard.) And none of the crooks, including Hanks, generates the nuanced exasperation or affection with the matronly Hall that every cast member in the original registered with the deceptively chirpy Katie Johnson.

Right before a murder attempt, the Coens will depict one gang member thinking of Hall as his mama or another having second thoughts about taking her life. Instead of precisely planned shocks, we get thudding, dunderheaded broadsides or fuzzy, delayed-reaction movie-making.

This movie is much more daring than the first film about using graphic elements like a dismembered finger, and much less daring about toying with the naughtiness of putting an airy character in peril.

Hall's directness is hearty and shriveling; in the funniest moment, she might as well be commenting on Hanks' puny performance when she says he's containing himself just fine. But she's too formidable a presence for the good of the comedy. This widow projects the power of a big bad wolf: With a huff and puff she could blow them all down, including Mountain Girl - along with the doodling wiseacres behind the camera.


Starring Tom Hanks

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Released by Touchstone/Disney

DRated PG-13

Time 104 minutes

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