In this golden era of the leaden remake, Joel and Ethan Coen have always promised something brighter. Rather than merely copy old movies, they've taken them as the starting point for jokey, fractured riffs on the idea of noir, romantic comedy or Capra corn. Until now. Their misshapen new movie, The Ladykillers, is based on the 1955 Ealing Studios classic about London thieves, led by scary Alec Guinness, who use a clueless old woman's house as a base of operations for a robbery. Such a wicked storyline seems right up the brothers' alley, and at first you may think they're pulling it off. They neatly transpose the action to the South and turn the old woman into a devout African-American church lady (Irma P. Hall). Better still, they unleash Tom Hanks, a terrific comic actor who—after playing the Noble American for the past few years—relishes the chance to ham it up. Sporting goofy fake teeth, he plays the bearded, white-suited Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D., a mountebank who speaks with amusingly old-fashioned grandiloquence, punctuating his words with a rapid, air-sucking laugh. He's surrounded by a band of crooked brothers, including a muscle-bound dolt (Ryan Hurst), a brutally efficient Asian with a Hitler mustache (Tzi Ma) and a sassy black dude who can't stop saying "motherfucker" (Marlon Wayans). (Having demonstrated their mastery of insensitively portraying Jews, the Coens have moved on, heroically, to African-Americans.)
It's the disease of Hollywood remakes that they nearly always lose sight of what made the original good in the first place. Where Alexander Mackendrick's film offered a delicately diabolical blend of the ordinary and the brutal—it was a character comedy about a hilariously thwarted attempt to kill a frail old woman—the new Ladykillers bludgeons you with cartoonish gags about stupid football players, irritable-bowel syndrome and (for the second Coen film in a row) somebody accidentally shooting himself in the head. For all their considerable talent, the Coens have almost always had trouble telling stories, and here they cram the whole biddy-bashing premise into the last few minutes, where it lacks all menace and brio. Is it possible that the these aficionados of black comedy don't realize that The Ladykillers is supposed to be one?
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The Ladykillers was directed by Ethan and Joel Coen; written by the Coens from a screenplay and original story by William Rose; produced by the Coens, Tom Jacobson, Barry Josephson and Barry Sonnenfeld; and stars Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall and Marlon Wayons. Now playing countywide.