The Coen brothers would seem the ideal candidates to update Alexander Mackendrick's classic 1955 Ealing comedy about a little old lady whose sheer ignorant integrity protects her against the desperate criminals she unwittingly harbors in her boarding house. In The Ladykillers (which opens Friday, March 26, at the Egyptian and other theaters), the Coen sensibility has much in common with the original (recently issued on DVD). They, too, revel in oddball lingo and quirky character traits, jauntily macabre tone, cute subversiveness, and an intricate visual precision in capturing the humblest domestic details. In both films, the crack in a teacup can open a lane to the land of the deadpan pratfall—or the just plain dead.
So it's odd, and disappointing, that this remake lacks the clockwork perfection of the original (and of most Coen films). In Mackendrick's tale, Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) was hysterically funny by puttering around in quiet, earnest goodwill and wreaking havoc everywhere she went. The Coens' tale is all fits and starts, a succession of disconnected skits revolving around the now more formidable landlady, Marva (Irma P. Hall), who steals most scenes from the thieves.
Yet Hall's very vigor and vividness work against the effect that Johnson's old-British-lady effortlessly projected in the Ealing original. She's imposing, a big bowlegged mama with the muscle to whomp you into Jesus' arms if that's what it takes. Johnson was tiny, birdlike, stooped from osteoporosis. What made the original funny was the comic contrast between the thugs and the dovelike, cooing, infinitely vulnerable Mrs. Wilberforce. Marva is sweet, but she's about as vulnerable as Grand Coulee Dam. She may be poor and poorly-informed, but her instincts are good, and she gets great advice from the imposing portrait of her late husband, whose face keeps changing expression each time we see it. From the highly spirited services at her church, rousingly dramatized by the roots-music-fanboy Coens (and selected by T Bone Burnett), she also gets additional moral authority.
Something else the Coens get wrong is how, unlike Mrs. Wilberforce, Marva doesn't cause trouble so much as witlessly witness it. In the 1955 version, ringleader Alec Guinness' felonious little plans moved with the smooth inevitability of an elegant proof—until Mrs. Wilberforce knocked them into comic chaos.
In place of Guinness as the thieves' maestro (wearing the most character-enhancing false teeth this side of Charlize Theron), Tom Hanks stars as Professor G.H. Dorr, with snaggly choppers and Col. Sanders twang, goatee, and couture. Though evidently not a real academic—his background, like the Guinness character, seems to be in madhouses—he is professorial in his quibblingly gilded sentences (a Coen trademark) and his habit of gaspingly giggling, very oddly, at odd times.
The Professor and his gang move into Marva's boarding house in order to tunnel from her basement into the neighboring casino's cash vault. In quick succession, the Coens give us priceless introductions to each of Dorr's four thug underlings. We get a helmet's-eye view of the last hapless game of Lump (Ryan Hurst), a football player so butterfingered he "can't catch a cold." Walrus-mustachioed prop man Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) manages to kill the hero of a dog-food commercial right before the eyes of the ASPCA official. Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans) incompetently tries to rob a convenience store owned by ultra-tough, taciturn, Hitler-mustachioed ex-Vietcong General (Tzi Ma); they, too, enlist in Dorr's merry band.
Weirdly, the star is here eclipsed by his co-stars. Hanks' films have earned $4.8 billion, and they deserve every penny, but his performance this time is small change. In the original, Guinness was just a bit sinister: His blazing eyes and anarchic forelock smacked of German expressionist maniacs and movie monsters. Hanks is not scary; prissy is more like it. His line of jive to manipulate Marva into his way of thinking is amusing, but shaggy-doggish, like Albert Finney's overly protracted monologues in Big Fish. He's killing time telling tall tales, but he's Tom Hanks—we know he'll never kill the old lady. Of course, Guinness wasn't going to kill Johnson either, but the shimmering sense that some craziness lurked behind his eyes and he just might was crucial to the original's black comedy and tension.
The 1955 film's heist feels offhand: Easy money was never so easy (at first!). In 2004, the heist feels perfunctory, and the unraveling afterward has no momentum, only moments. Events and reactions seem artificial, pasted onto Dorr and his cronies, not arising organically out of their characters. The Coens' besetting sin has always been a certain detachment, which could have been in keeping with the old Ladykillers spirit. But their signature who-gives-a-shit élan works better with their own scripts than when they're trying to cross over into Hollywood, as they've done in the years since Fargo earned them an Oscar for best original screenplay.
The thieves do eventually score $1.6 million (which Marva duly discovers, setting into motion the lady-killing plot machinery), and the film does have its share of rewards. There's a wonderfully geometric opening shot of a garbage barge emerging fatefully from under a bridge; there are many sight and vocal gags that I won't spoil by quoting. Much additional entertainment value comes from Garth's can-do mind and can't-do hands, Gawain's crass sass, Marva's warm spark, and the resonant way Lump's penultimate words to the Professor echo both M. Emmet Walsh in Blood Simple and Lump's counterpart in the original Ladykillers. Every Coen film is worth watching. But, salaries aside, if they're ever going to score big bucks at the multiplex instead of the art houses of Manhattan, West L.A., Seattle, and San Francisco, it'll have to be on their next caper.