Southern Discomfort in Coensville, MS
By Fernando F. Croce

Remake fever rages on. Last month there was a revamped Dawn of the Dead, and later this year we have been promised updates of Walking Tall, The Manchurian Candidate and The Stepford Wives, to say nothing of Peter Jackson's upcoming "re-envisioning" of King Kong. This speaks volumes of the short-term memory (political as well as cultural) that plagues our society, and of the lack of originality, respect for audiences ("Oh, No one really remembers that movie, let's just repackage and sell it as new") and sheer guts that rots so much of today's movie industry. Not to sound gloomy, but the law of diminishing returns may have finally caught up with Hollywood's pitiless recycling trend with the new comedy The Ladykillers. The latest live-action cartoon from tag-team filmmaking brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, the movie is a near-complete botch of everything that made the original memorable, even if it keeps up the consistency of themes and style of the Coens canon. The opening, with a grimacing gargoyle statue watching over an island of garbage, is perhaps more of a metaphor for the film than the brothers may have intended.

The trash dumb belongs to a sleepy Mississippi town where a casino boat (dubbed the Bandit Queen) stores its earnings. Tom Hanks, sporting dandyish white suits and curlied, graying temples, plays "Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, PhD," a criminal mastermind whose speech is a nonstop flow of mellifluous Dixie gallantries (occasionally interrupted by his wheezing giggles). To relieve the vaults of the casino's booty, he maps out a robbery plan enlisting a batch of accomplices, including a toilet-mouthed momma's boy (Marlon Wayans), a '60s civil rights worker turned explosives expert (J.K. Simmons), a taciturn Vietnamese killer known only as "The General" (Tzi Ma), and the obligatory dim musclehead (Ryan Hurst).

Masquerading as a church music quintet, they rent a room in the dilapidated home of elderly, no-nonsense Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall), where the gang plans to carry out their scheme. That this landlady's bossy adherence to God-fearing decency proves to be a rather formidable foil to the gang is one of the remake's departures from the 1955 British original. In the older picture, directed by Alexander Mackendrick, a motley gang of crooks (lorded over by Alec Guinness, tricked out with tombstone-sized choppers) was pitted against a wizened, birdlike old woman (Katie Johnson) whose sweet obliviousness to the world around her protected her like an invisible shield from the goons' machinations. The Coens' shifting the plot from London suburbs to the American Bible Belt is reflected in the casting of Hall, whose specialties are robust piety and smacking people upside the head. Her vigor and blinkered morality align her to Frances McDormand's pregnant police chief in Fargo, whose unthinking, cheery faith in people similarly navigated her through an ocean of human horrors.

The problem with this (and it runs throughout the Coens' work) is that the filmmakers cannot help but equate the characters' goodness with stupidity, all the better to chortle and establish their own superiority (and the audience's) to them. This kind of wise-ass distancing -- the unwillingness to get down on the level of the knuckleheaded souls in their films -- lends a desolating iciness to even their busiest comedies. To compensate, the Coens lay on their trademark stylistic bombast (antsy camera angles, a football match shot -- yawn -- from within a bruiser's helmet, wanton wide-angle lenses) and tons of coarse skittering (including uncooperative diarrhea, mouth-to-mouth on a dying bulldog, and profanities repeated over and over). It's good to see Tom Hanks in a comic role again, and his performance is a gamely stylized private gig of tin-can grandiloquence, fumbling menace and snorking sounds.

Unfortunately, it is stranded in a film that, like the Coens' previous O Brother Where Art Thou and Intolerable Cruelty, is a strenuously manic, virtually laugh-free comedy. For the deft, Swiss-watch timing of the original, the new Ladykillers substitutes a painting that keeps changing expressions and an overworked gospel soundtrack to cue up giggles that never come. It is not surprising that the Coens are at their most engaged at the end, when disasters start befalling the gang members -- they're clearly happiest when knocking off their pathetic characters in elaborately gruesome slapstick concoctions. If playing God is something that basically every film artist does in one way or another, then I am afraid the Coens will always play especially jaundiced divinities -- their chilly smirk matches Kubrick's, but without his trying brilliance to compensate for their humanity-as-puppet-show reductions.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on April 6, 2004.

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