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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The Ladykillers

Posted By on Wed, Mar 31, 2004 at 12:00 AM

The Ladykillers is Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake of the 1955 film of the same name featuring Tom Hanks in the role that Alec Guinness assumed in the original. What’s wrong with that sentence? For starters, why are the Coens making remakes? These are the guys who penned one of the most brilliant screenplays of all time with their 1990 classic, Miller’s Crossing, and now they’re doing remakes? It may not be a fair criticism, but have they run out of original ideas? These filmmakers, who gave us Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Fargo, are mining classic British comedies from the ’50s?

Those who wait for a new Coen brothers film with the same anticipation with which they await their tax refund have reason to be a little nervous. The Coens’ previous films, insanely quotable and impossible to forget, were written with such precision and intelligence and humor that it’s more than a little deflating to watch a film not wholly born out of their own heads. Putting all that prejudice and anxiety aside, how do the Coens fare with their latest outing? Well, it’s OK.

OK. It’s pretty safe stuff, has a few chuckles in it, some soul-shaking gospel numbers and a character that suffers from irritable bowel syndrome. But it’s only “OK.” In keeping with being terribly unfair, “OK” is not good enough when you see a Coen brothers movie. It’s got to be “great,” because the brothers have chosen to always be great, and now they’re merely “OK”? It’s like finding out there is no Santa Claus, or that professional wrestling is fake, or that it’s a mere mortal behind the curtain, not the all-powerful Wizard of Oz. Other directors and writers can be “OK,” but to watch the Coen brothers only muster a lukewarm reaction is especially sad.

The film is about a Southern dandy with an amazing vocabulary, Hanks as Professor G. H. Dorr, who rents a room in a house owned by a Bible-thumping, ridiculously bow-legged elderly black woman by the name of Murva Munson, for the sole purpose of digging through her root cellar to get at the safe owned by the Bandit Queen casino boat moored nearby. This is the deep, deep South of Saucier, Miss., and the Coens have a fine time lampooning all the good-old-boy stereotypes. The good professor, insanely charming, assembles his “gang” of criminals in Murva’s cellar under the guise that they are chamber musicians, practicing the medieval-era music that is an area of research for the good “professor.” Murva, with consultations with a portrait of her deceased husband, slowly realizes there is something fishy going on.

Is it funny? Sometimes. The film has a wonderful “look” to it, and the Coens have a lot of fun with gospel music and preachin’ and all the props and affectations of Southern culture. But is it good?

Well, it’s OK.

Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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