Drawing the heroine of Fargo into this review is appropriate, given that both that film and The Ladykillers were written, directed and produced by Hollywood's enfants terribles, Joel and Ethan Coen. Adored by millions, disparaged by hundreds of thousands, indifferently received by, well, maybe five people in Cleveland (it's hard to be middle of the road with this pair), the Coens inspire their defenders to praise them for giving new life to time-worn genres while their detractors condemn them for what they consider impersonal feats of technical derring-do.
The Ladykillers may be their easiest target yet -- and the most difficult for fans to defend. The film marks the brothers' first out-and-out remake, an update of the fondly remembered 1955 movie of the same name. A product of Britain's Ealing Studios, the outfit that knocked out a string of memorable comedies renowned for their tar-black wit and eccentric characterizations (other titles included Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob), the original Ladykillers starred Alec Guinness as the leader of a gang of crooks whose grand heist becomes unraveled thanks to the innocent interference of a doddering old lady.
Ladykillers '04 moves the action from England to the Deep South, but that's only the first of the many changes the Coens have implemented as they set about recycling and renovating the source material.
Instead of a frail Englishwoman, the perpetual thorn in this mob's side is a robust, churchgoing widow with the ability to slap anyone upside the head. Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) has agreed to lease a room in her home to Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks), little suspecting that he's actually a criminal mastermind who plans to use her cellar as a base of operations for a casino heist. Passing themselves off as musicians who need the privacy of the cellar for rehearsals, Dorr and his cut-rate crew -- foul-mouthed inside man Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), inept explosives handler Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), tight-lipped tunnel digger The General (Tzi Ma) and brain-damaged muscleman Lump (Ryan Hurst) -- work quickly to carry out their plot, with clashing personalities proving to be the primary obstacle. But once Marva gets wind of the men's scheme and insists that they repent for their sinful ways, the gang of five decides that bumping off the old lady might be the best course of action. Of course, they hadn't counted on the difficulties of getting rid of this old lady.
The oddest aspect of this coolly detached comedy is that it never feels especially funny -- at least not in the gut-busting, knee-slapping sense. Certainly, the Coens work overtime to make it humorous from first frame to last, but the laughs don't flow as easily as they did in, say, Raising Arizona or last year's Intolerable Cruelty. But that's not necessarily because the movie fumbles its gags; on the contrary, they're executed so well, we end up admiring the intricacies behind the set pieces rather than the set pieces themselves. For instance, when we're introduced to the character of Lump, we're seeing the world through his eyes (i.e., the camera reflects his point of view), peering out from behind a football helmet at the opposing team's intimidating players. Every time Lump takes a hit, we suddenly see the blue sky up above, with Lump's legs and feet briefly appearing at the bottom of the frame to indicate their flailing nature as he drops hard to the turf. As I sat watching this scene with mouth tightly shut but upward curls forming at the corners, I wasn't thinking "Boy, what a hilarious scene!" as much as "Wow, who came up with this impressive visual gag and how exactly did they film it?"
And then there's the matter of Tom Hanks' central performance. Outfitted in duds and facial hair that make him look like Colonel Sanders' illegitimate son, donning an oversized pair of teeth that appear as if they could chew through a redwood (though they're still not as outrageous as the choppers Guinness wore in the original), adopting the most sinister wheezy-laugh since Ronald Lacey's Nazi sadist in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and presented as a loquacious windbag whose dialogue seemingly employs every five-dollar word found in the English language, this character is unlike any other we've seen recently on the big screen. Hanks' portrayal is masterful in its attention to the character's fussiness and flamboyance, but it's too mannered, too coiled, to draw genuine laughs as, say, Johnny Depp did with a similarly loopy but more relaxed turn in Pirates of the Caribbean. It's an absolute pleasure to watch Hanks at work here, but the pleasure is because we know it's Hanks, not because he disappears into his character.
If all this sounds like a backhanded compliment, it's not meant to. After all, not every comedy is designed to produce wails of approval so potent that viewers blow Coca-Cola out their nose. Some satires work at a lower altitude, foregoing spontaneous guffaws for the less subtle, but no less worthy, gag that gently gnaws at our cerebral cortex -- the kind of conspiratorial comedy that makes us feel we're privy to an inside joke. The Ladykillers is that kind of movie. In fact, it might be the first instance in which the middle-school putdown, "That's so funny I forgot to laugh," can be interpreted as the highest compliment.