Reel To Reel:How It Rates: ****
Starring: Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans, Irma P. Hall
Red Flags: Copious F-bombs, Some Sex-Related Dialogue
Preconceived Notions: The Coen brothers return to comedy and snag Tom Hanks to boot. This looks very promising.
The Bottom Line: One of the best caper comedies ever.
Ethan and Joel Coen have proven themselves the plastic men of film, stretching their writing and directing talents amongst goofball comedy (Raising Arizona) to high-brow goofball comedy (Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy) to musical comedy (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to dark comedy (Fargo) to just plain darkness (Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing).
So when I hear the Coens have a caper film up their sleeve featuring Tom Hanks, it's just another stretch on their rubbery resumes.
And boy, this is some stretch. The Ladykillers is a remake of a classic British caper film featuring Sir Alec Guinness, but transplanted to a Mississippi ghost town which only exists for two reasons: gambling and garbage. A parade of trash barges dump refuge on a heaping island in the river running through town, whose waters also float a riverboat casino.
That casino is the target for con-man professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks), a Colonel Sanders knock-off who's probably conning about his professorships, too. But we're really not sure with the way he performs elevated verbal gymnastics, gliding between poetry and Renaissance music as he cons his way into the home and heart of Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall). She's a no-nonsense churchgoing lady who despises "hippity-hop" music, sends weekly donations to Bob Jones University and lives in the shadow of her late husband, whose portrait perpetually looks down from the fireplace.
Door and his crew have a plan to rob the casino's counting-room, conveniently accessible from Munson's basement, if they're willing to dig. Door's partners in crime include a trash-mouthed homeboy (Wayans) who's the "inside man" at the casino (and whose mouth earns the film an R rating), a blockhead football player who's taken too many tackles, a laconic tunneling expert who could have come from the Viet Cong, and an explosives man with irritable bowel syndrome. Door's cover story for all of this is that they're Renaissance musicians who need a place to rehearse.
The Ladykillers puts a huge weight on Hanks to deliver, and watching him finesse as he finagles is sheer joy. You can watch him work in this film over and over again, like playing your favorite song, and never get tired of it. Hall is a scene-stealer, but wisely, the Coens don't let her make off with this picture. And of course, with everything Coen, the script is the real star, masterfully crafted and full of comic energy, right to the end, even if its supporting players seem a little too exaggerated.
The film is packed with memorable moments and outstanding photography. The soundtrack soulfully blends gospel with that "hippity-hop." You may need to watch the film twice to catch the nuances.
Other critics have complained about this film's cartoonishness, and I would sympathize more if this wasn't a Coen film. Cartoonish qualities seem to be their trademark. Look at O, Brother. Look especially hard at Raising Arizona. Both were embraced for their quirkiness. I can only conclude other reviewers are trying too hard to measure this film against of Guinness' original. Oceans Eleven proved a caper film can be remade with wit, style and new energy. And that's what I see here.
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