Tom Hanks stars as Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, the slimy well-dressed wordsmith lead in this Coen comedy remake involving poetry recitals, irritable bowel syndrome, and a protective cat. He assembles a rag-tag gang of men in hopes to rob a local casino in muggy Mississippi where church services are loud and paper fans are always waving. The gang, disguised as Late Renaissance musicians, shack up in basement of Marva Munson and begin tunneling their way to prosperity. She’s naive but quick-witted, a God-fearing widow full of faith, and the only thing standing between the criminals and the spoils of their labor. I cannot say for certain, having never seen the original, but this all seems to be perfectly suited for the Coen Brothers: the host of whacky, colorful, and often stupid characters and a crime story turned farcical. It is perhaps a bit too well-suited. It’s great to see Tom Hanks having such a good time but he occasionally overdoes the role (his fits of rabbit-like laughing miss the mark). His performance is emblematic of the film as a whole.
Even on a bad day the Coens can cook up a great story and some great laughs. Uniqueness is always a guarantee. For all its strengths The Ladykillers remains a lesser entry in the Coens’ filmography. Irma P. Hall is a joy to watch, her Munson in the vein of Marge Gunderson. J.K. Simmons plays an IBS-ridden demolitions expert. He sports an eccentric mustache and even has a catch-phrase (“Easiest thing in the world!”). Tzi Ma steals the show as The General, a steely-faced ex-Vietcong soldier with an eternally lit cigarette between his lips. Amidst all of the dialogue jokes he scarcely says a word. His antagonistic relationship with Marva over his smoking is a hoot. As distinctly Coen as the characters are everything feels just a bit overcooked. In the end it’s all a bit too much to be as hilarious as it so obviously desires.
Ironically enough, for a comedy, The Ladykillers boasts more story than laughs. “The comedy must end,” Dorr says. The off-kilter wryness of the caper is uniquely fun and frankly suspenseful throughout various moments. It takes a noir-inspired, fatalistic turn two-thirds into the film, beautifully shot by Roger Deakins. Ultimately the zany caper contains more laughs and more effort than 90% of today’s “comedies.” The Coens display much of their usual wit (“The Cask of Amontillado” gets a welcome wink) and the story engages. The brothers prove that even their B-grade efforts best many “witty” filmmakers’ best effort.