Fri, Jun 11, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Impostors take on one good lady

'The Ladykillers' is a remake of a 1955 British farce that included Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers 320 and it's not a bad effort, with Tom Hanks clearly enjoying playing the 'bad guy'

By A. O. Scott  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Tom Hanks, center, appears to enjoy his role as the scheming professor in the Coen brothers' latest comedic journey.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF BVI

After many years of clean-shaven, all-American affability, Tom Hanks has lately begun to explore the possibilities of facial hair and regional accents: the harsh New England vowels of Catch Me if You Can, for example, and also the thin mustache of Road to Perdition and the shaggy four-year growth of Cast Away. In The Ladykillers, an uneven, prankish caper comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen, he sports a resplendent Old South Vandyke, with orotund diction to match.

Giddy with the joy of playing, at long last, a bona fide villain, Hanks swans through the role of G. H. Dorr, Ph.D., a supposed professor of classics whose true vocation is crime, with a vaudevillian relish that would be unseemly if it were not contagious. His laugh, issuing through what appears to be prosthetic (and in any case none too clean) teeth, is a stuttering whinny, and his mouth also unleashes a flood of florid Mississippi nonsense.

Hand on heart he reels off lines from Edgar Allan Poe and paeans to the bygone glories of Greece and Rome. To hear Hanks pronounce the word cinquecento -- if this were a play you might need an umbrella -- is almost worth the price of the ticket.

Since Miller's Crossing the Coen brothers have frequently dabbled in an inimitable form of antiquarian pastiche, mining old styles and genres to remake movies that were never made in the first place. The Ladykillers, which follows last year's underrated neo-screwball Intolerable Cruelty, is an actual remake, transplanting Alexander Mackendrick's 1955 British farce into the rich topsoil of the American South.

There is, as ever, a strong argument for leaving the original alone -- it would be hard for any cast to measure up to one that included Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers -- but while this Ladykillers is a bit of a throwaway, it does have its moments.

Film Notes

Written and directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Starring:

Tom Hanks (Professor Dorr), Irma P. Hall (Marva Munson), Marlon Wayans (Gawain MacSam), J. K. Simmons (Garth Pancake), Ryan Hurst (Lump), Tzi Ma (the General) and George Wallace (Sheriff Wyner)

Running time:

104 minutes

Taiwan Release: today


It starts on a high note, with a verbal barrage that is one of the funniest opening scenes since Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels, to which the Coens paid homage in O Brother Where Art Thou. Marva Munson, a devout African-American widow (played with stereotype-destroying gusto by the amazing Irma Hall), arrives at a small-town sheriff's office in high dudgeon, complaining about young people and their "hippety-hop" music, much to the puzzlement of the impatient sheriff (George Wallace).

Soon after, Professor Dorr arrives at the house Munson shares with her orange cat and a glowering portrait of her late husband, Othar, inquiring about renting a room. With the help of a raggedy crew of crooks -- absurdly masquerading as an amateur early-music ensemble -- he plans to dig a tunnel into the vault where proceeds from the local riverboat casino are kept.

The plans, as you might expect, are complicated both by Munson's inconvenient presence and by tensions within the gang of would-be master thieves. Pancake, the phlegmatic demolition expert (J. K. Simmons), is perpetually at odds with Gawain (Marlon Wayans), who is full of hippety-hop attitude. Simmons and Wayans, irrepressible showboaters, overshadow the two remaining conspirators, a Vietnamese general (Tzi Ma) and a dumb football player (Ryan Hurst), who are pretty much one-joke characters.

The movie itself is one long joke, and there are long stretches where its inventiveness flags and its humor wears thin. It would be hard to think of a more threadbare premise -- I will not bore you with a catalog of recent heist pictures; if you have seen any besides Oceans Eleven and Heist you will be plenty bored already -- and the Coens do not seem interested in investing it with new life. Rather, the story is a flimsy frame to be ornamented with diverting bric-a-brac, and the movie as a whole is something of a paradox: a work of elaborate and painstaking craftsmanship that is at the same time a piece of junk.

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