The artistic discrepancy between the Coen Brothers' remake of The Ladykillers and Alexander Mackendrick's 1955 film illustrates the Coens' problem of ballooning fussiness and shrinking effect. Mackendrick's film told its nasty O. Henry-esque story in terms as refined and straightforward as the Boccherini minuet which served as the film's theme. Alec Guinness's preposterous, cracked criminal genius was just over the top, but completely understandable and perversely identifiable; against better judgment, audiences identify with his insane greed much more than with the little old busybody he threatens. The Coens' film is crypto-nihilistic, equating its criminals with human trash and denigrating its little old lady as a blissfully ignorant, holy-rolling fool, all to repeated, cheerful gospel choruses of "Come, Let Us Go Back to God."
The principal criticisms of the Coens have always been their snide lack of sympathy for their characters and their smugly superior tone. At times, those criticisms were arguably unfounded or certainly outweighed by stylistic panache, but lately the Coens have produced more awkwardly sketchy films (each finding its apologists) than fully integrated ones. Love them or leave them, but the Coens first four films--Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, and Barton Fink--far more successfully harnessed and rode archetypes to places of dread and hilarity than their four most recent films: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (an overwrought hick joke which was twice as "clever" and half as entertaining as Raising Arizona), The Man Who Wasn't There (an admittedly stylish Kafka-esque redux of Blood Simple), Intolerable Cruelty (a balls-out comedy with precious few laughs), and now the misbegotten The Ladykillers: finally, an admission that the Coens have mostly settled for remaking their favorite movies. O brother, what have you done for me lately?
Buoyed by crack collaborators (composer Carter Burwell, music supervisor T-Bone Burnett, cinematographer Roger Deakins, et al), the Coens make bad movies which are indeed better than the best work of most Hollywood hacks, but to call a spade a spade, The Ladykillers is a bad movie. Tom Hanks plays the Guinness role--redubbed Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D.—a Southern-fried shyster who abuses the trust of Irma P. Hall's widower while planning a casino heist. Instead of the original's clever use of the old lady as a "cover," the thieves here want her house for its strategic proximity to the casino; most of the film plays like a (gulp) less-funny version of Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks. Here the Coens' signature cleverness also fails them: just exactly how is it that the old lady can hear the Boccherini minuet they're supposedly practicing but not the power-drilling which at times accompanies it?
The product placement of Burger King spiritually weds The Ladykillers to cineplex neighbor Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, but the most offensive bit is the old woman's purpose in life. Hall comes on ranting about newfangled rap music, proceeds to attend mass (the better for Burnett to ply gospel tunes), and longingly recalls her dead husband (personified in an old visual joke of a painting which changes expression as the plot turns). But nothing gives her more pleasure than sending her $5 a month to ultraconservative Bob Jones University, which--only a few years ago--was shamed into changing its nakedly racist policy. The punctuating punchline (involving the household pet) elicits a laugh, but the sour taste remains from the resolution of the misguided old lady's story.
Dorr is sometimes called "G. Dorr", perhaps in an oblique reference to painter Gustave Doré, whose imposing skies and bizarre images are recalled in Deakins' computer-enhanced visuals. The look is one of the film's few assets: Hall does precisely what is asked of her, and does it well, but Hanks, aside from his amusingly hyperventilated laugh, can find no purchase with his loquacious but inhuman character. Hanks's cohorts fare no better: Marlon Wayans as a foul-mouthed idiot in need of Freudian therapy, J.K. Simmons as a mustachioed explosives expert with irritable bowel syndrome and a domestic partner he calls "Mountain Girl", Tzi Ma as a Vietnamese ex-soldier of fortune with a Hitler mustache, and Ryan Hurst as Lump, a perpetually slack-jawed simpleton. Ma nails one of the film's few funny lines; when Hanks solicits opinions about offing the woman of the house, Ma replies, "One must float like a leaf on the river of life...and kill old lady." Okay, and then what? The Coens could use a little advice right about now.