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With: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, Stephen Root
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, based on a screenplay by William Rose
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
MPAA Rating: R for language including sexual references
Running Time: 104
Date: 03/26/2004

The Ladykillers (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

O Coens, Where art thou?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Joel and Ethan Coen have been responsible for three of the funniest movies ever made: Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?

But some of their other comedies, The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty and the new The Ladykillers, have not been able to summon the same comic chemistry. The only common ingredient in these three lesser films is the presence of other writers or producers.

The Coens create their best movies in a vacuum. Their very specific universes are packed full of precision-placed minutiae and deliberate behavior patterns. It seems that the moment an outside force punctures this delicate balance, or dilutes the mix, the whole operation collapses like a fragile souffl´┐Ż in a noisy kitchen full of too many cooks.

The Ladykillers is a remake of a great 1955 comedy written by William Rose, directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Alec Guinness. Most people know Guinness only as Obi-Wan Kenobi, but he was once one of our greatest comic actors, a chameleon with great subtlety and range.

In the new film, Tom Hanks -- blessedly returning to his comic roots -- ably takes over the Guinness role, as the verbose Professor G.H. Dorr. He rents a room from a delightfully stubborn little old lady, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), whose house is conveniently located near a casino.

Dorr recruits four cohorts (Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma and Ryan Hurst), disguised as a practicing music group, and proceeds to rob the casino by tunneling underground. When Marva finds out about their little enterprise, the men try to kill her. But their efforts meet with the same results as when Charlie Chaplin tried to kill Martha Raye in Monsieur Verdoux -- she's just too lucky or blessed, or both.

The trouble with The Ladykillers is that most of the gags are repeated from old time sources, and they're repeated over and over again. One character (Simmons) is an ex-hippie with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and the Coens mine the most obvious gags already contained therein. Likewise the other characters: Tzi plays a former Japanese military man who has since converted to Buddhism and barely speaks; Wayans plays his usual trash-talker; and Hurst plays a dumb, mouth-breathing football player.

Hanks' character appears lifted from George Clooney's talky Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother. His comedy comes from his verbosity and he panics unnecessarily when the ineffective local sheriff (George Wallace) comes around. As good as Hanks is here, he fails to give the character the organic center that Clooney managed.

Even the T-Bone Burnett song score sounds like pining for another "O Brother"-sized soundtrack hit.

Yet the movie still has the Coens' singular flourishes, such as the inspired way we meet Dorr's team in a series of very funny, totally unconnected scenes. The best gag involves the manner in which the tunnel diggers dispose of their unwanted dirt and other rubbish.

Mostly it's Ms. Irma P. Hall (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Beloved) who steals the film. She's the only character who carries any dignity while still being funny. Hall's scenes with Hanks are especially lovely, particularly one in which he discusses his love for Edgar Allan Poe, much to her amazement and steely-eyed suspicion.

One wishes that Hall had used her trademark sassiness and scolded the Coens into working just a little bit harder and giving us the great comedy they were capable of.

DVD Details: I just couldn't bring myself to watch this again. It's just too sad to see the genius Coens flounder so badly. To date, the Coens have only recorded one commentary track, for their masterpiece The Man Who Wasn't There, and so Buena Vista's widescreen (1.85-to-1) The Ladykillers DVD only comes with the following: a "Slap Reel" of outtakes, deleted music scenes, a featurette and a "scriptscanner" DVD-rom featurette. Audio options include Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and a French language track. Optional subtitles include Spanish and French.

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