The Ladykillers (2004)

“Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr” is a wonderful name for a conniving smoothie, and Tom Hanks plays the role like a man who relishes nothing so much as unfurling that majestic name. In The Ladykillers, Hanks is looser and funnier than he has been in quite some time; he affects a triumphantly baroque Mississippi accent and speaks with the utmost hilarious precision, as if his every sentence were a dewy lover leaving the folds of his bedsheets. It’s a fully imagined comic performance to match that of Alec Guinness, who played the analogous role in the original 1955 comedy from the Ealing Studios. I can’t remember the last movie character so charmingly in love with the sound of his own voice.

This Ladykillers comes courtesy of Joel and Ethan Coen, whom some may consider above something so base as a remake. But the original story (like Assault on Precinct 13) allows for any number of retellings; the true star of both movies is the premise. In both, a band of criminals hole up in the home of an elderly lady, under the pretense of practicing chamber music. They plan to pull off a big heist, but the old lady gets in their way. Except for the mastermind (Guinness in ’55, Hanks in ’04) and a big, brainless bruiser (Danny Green then, Ryan Hurst now), the criminals in the remake don’t correspond much to those in the original; there’s no callous Herbert Lom figure in the Coen film, or an equivalent to Peter Sellers’ Cockney layabout. The new group includes a hip-hop janitor (Marlon Wayans), a demolition man (J.K. Simmons), and a stoic combatant (Tzi Ma).

The old lady in the original was a twittering dear thing with a habit of reporting imagined oddities to the police. In the remake, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) is a formidable black woman as comfortable handing out slaps upside the head as serving cookies. The Coens’ script is a little foreshortened; those familiar with William Rose’s 1955 scenario will miss the circular logic that allows the police to disregard the old lady’s story (in the remake, she reports a neighbor’s loud “hippity-hop” music). Still, Irma P. Hall makes a strong foil for the inept thieves, especially Marlon Wayans, who at the moment of truth — as in the prior film, he’s drawn the short straw and has to eliminate Marva — is undone by sentimental thoughts of his mama.

A character who picks the worst possible time to have bowel problems may seem a bit too scatological for the Coens’ refined tastes. But then these are the same pranksters who had thugs pee on Jeff Bridges’ rug in The Big Lebowski (“That rug really pulled the room together, man”). A scene involving self-defense at a donut shop (with the instant-classic line “Get your fingers out my man’s nose!”) had me laughing well after it was over. Ryan Hurst, as the aptly named Lump, gives us one of those hyperbolically stupid Coen characters, introduced in a highly entertaining idiot’s-point-of-view scene on a football field. Even a cat doesn’t escape the morbid Coen touch, providing this darkening comedy with its final brilliant sick joke. (A barge passing under a bridge, as in the original, serves nicely as a means to dispose of inconvenient objects.)

Tom Hanks presides over it all, looking and acting supremely happy to be there, like previous stars who’ve blossomed under the Coens’ jurisdiction (Nicolas Cage, Jeff Bridges, George Clooney). The Ladykillers is worth seeing just for the moments when the quick-thinking Professor Dorr, never less than exquisitely solicitous, moves heaven and earth to explain to his suspicious landlady why money is floating around the root cellar, or lends his golden pipes to a recitation of Poe, or attempts to calm a gun-waving Marlon Wayans by pointing out that such behavior reflects badly on his colleagues and may present itself as unseemly to their fellow patrons of the Waffle Hut. I can well imagine the Coens guffawing as they wrote the dialogue for Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, and Hanks cackling as he first read it, and myself laughing when I hear it on the sure-to-be-overplayed DVD.

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