The Coen Brothers remake of the perfect and perfectly exquisite Ealing Studio comedy, THE LADYKILLERS, isnt just a misfire, its an annoying misfire, irksome, tedious, and on the whole, unnecessary. The original, as you recall, was perfect. It was, if you recall, a resolutely deadpan and black comedy that nonetheless taught a valuable lesson about the wages of sin and the formidable nature of absolute goodness. It was also wildly, wickedly funny. The superb Alec Guinness was the Professor, the brains behind the operation. Peter Sellers and a few others members of THE GOON SHOW were the improbable gang knocking off a bank by secretly tunneling into its vault from the basement of a little old ladys boarding house. Naturally, tensions rise between the mismatched gang members, and the landlady keeps dropping in at the most inopportune times, making it more and more difficult for the gang to either make any progress with the heist or to keep its cover as musicians rehearsing in that basement. If you havent seen it, or havent seen it in a while, it is the perfect tonic to the current revised, and anything but improved incarnation. Be prepared for a brisk bout of umbrage taking, though,
The Coens have moved the action from dreary post-War Britain to the dreary, sometimes sunnier, post-industrial boom of early 21st century Mississippi, the better to hedge all bets and use a soundtrack reminiscent of that used in O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, a retelling of Homers Odyssey that worked on may levels.
But I digress. Petulantly.
There, in the rural enclave of Saucier, a place of shuttered storefronts and lazy afternoons, comes The Professor, this time in the person of Tom Hanks. The bank has become a riverboat gambling palace anchored in the Mississippi, the gang still has issues, but the tunnel is still a tunnel leading from the basement of the landladys boarding house. The Professors gang, assembled from a want ad, is as ragtag and eccentric as the original, though the deadpan played so well by the other cast members is lost whenever Marlon Wayans appears on screen. His hip hop aesthetic, played both broadly and very loudly, jars us from the subtlety the film demands. And yet, the Brothers abandon that subtlety at almost every turn, mixing the dry wit with running jokes about irritable bowel syndrome and the sexual proclivities of the over 50 set. In short, all the sleek sophistication of your generic teen flick aimed at selling a soundtrack.
There’s no getting around that Tom Hanks shows great courage in taking on one of Sir Alecs signature roles, but then goes on to distract us by allowing his southern accent to wander the Delta without settling on any one specific region. A problem considering that his role is written with the rich florid prose to be found in a particular brand of southern speaking, reflected in a less caricatured way in the works of Eudora Welty or William Faulkner. Whatever delights to be found in hearing such euphonious phrases are lost when the accent begins, again, its perambulations. There is also the bilious giggle and the odd way in which The Professor is tricked out with a white, caped overcoat, precious goatee, and a carefully sculpted curlicue topping off his frothy coiffure. It makes one expect at any moment to be offered some fried chicken done Kentucky style. And then theres the landlady herself. In the original, much of the absurdity of the situation of desperate, dangerous criminals cowed by this woman came from the fact that she was a frail little thing who could be done in by a not particularly strong gust of wind. This time out she is a substantial, bible-thumping, God-fearing woman (Irma P. Hall), who could probably, despite her slight limp, snap any of the gang in half like an old twig, even the dim-witted, mouth-breathing jock. She certainly makes short work of Wayons character when he spouts a stream of obscenities that pass for colloquialisms in his milieu.
In the interests of fair and honest full disclosure, there are, perhaps, a half dozen moments of wild absurdity that do, in fact, provoke gales, nay, whoops of laughter. To say that more than one of them involves a severed finger is to sum up how well the Coens can get the black humor right. This is hardly surprising from the people who brought us FARGO, for example. Though patience be a virtue, and adversity an exercise in building character, it is only the most masochistic who will find the slog through the dreck of this flick worth any reward to be found.
Once one gets past the hubris of the Brothers, one can almost make out why they thought that their peculiar and often brilliant form of black humor might add another dimension to a retelling. And then one contemplates the psychological condition monikered folie a deux, and there is nothing else to wonder about except how they dragged so many others into the fray of delusions and denials that allowed this crime to be committed. It becomes, in the end, an object lesson in why not to tamper with perfection. Change a few things that seem inconsequential and the delicate alchemy that made the magic all goes up in a puff of smoke, leaving behind sorely tried audiences, and some very, very cranky critics. Then again, why see this when the original is only a rental or, better, a purchase away?