I’ve been waiting a long time for Tom Hanks to return to comedy. It looks like I’m going to keep on waiting. Like all Coen Brothers endeavors, The Ladykillers is quirky, amusing, and full of musical life… and yes Hanks is playing a character with an uncanny resemblance to Colonel Sanders (brace for the inevitable KFC lawsuit). Still, Hanks isn’t kidding around.
Dipping deep into the realm of the only slightly absurd, The Ladykillers mixes our modern era with the most unmodern world of God fearing, small-town Mississippi and in particular church-going Granny Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall). Mrs. Munson has a room for rent and so finds at her door Professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks). An elaborately educated man from a more genteel era, he’s looking for a place to stay. Reassuring Granny in his most irascibly soothing tone, G.H. pronounces himself “a man who is quiet… and yet not.” The Professor politely informs Mrs. Munson, using almost incomprehensibly complex language, that he heads a band which, he assures her does not engage in any of that “hippity-hop”. Thus does G.H. commandeer Mrs. Munson’s root cellar for his associates, who unfortunately cannot play a note. In point of fact, his weird and mismatched crew is planning to rob a nearby river boat, doing so by the most tested means available: A hastily dug tunnel.
Despite flowery words and educated scheming, from their first moment of meeting Ms. Munson has the upper hand. Within moments of knocking on her door, G.H. finds himself quite literally up a tree, chasing her cat. His would be conspirators fair little better. Introduced to us in a hilariously creative montage, each was selected for the group according to his or her specific talents, talents which regrettably fail to mesh all that well together. His band brought together (via a wanted ad), The Professor assembles his crack team in the basement, and begins conning his way to riches.
Marlon Wayans works pretty well here, but only because he’s playing a loudmouthed jackass, which is sort of what comes naturally. J.K. Simmons is playing another weird caricature, a disturbed amalgam of his gruff newspaperman from Spider-Man and everyone’s favorite animal handler Jack Hannah. Lump (Ryan Hurst) is a football player turned enforcer. He’s taken one too many concussions to the head and as a result can barely manage to get a word out let alone talk sense. The General is an elderly Chinese man, who we first meet as he beats the hell out of a would-be robber, by shoving his fingers up the young punk’s nose.
Hanks on the other hand, owes a special debt to Johnny Depp for paving the way with his rock and roll pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean. Like Captain Jack Sparrow, Hanks equally over the top Professor works not because Hanks is actually trying to be funny, but because he’s playing his role straight up dramatically. Fat Bastard crapping out a humongous turd this is not. Hanks portrayal is actually pretty fantastic, even hilarious at times as he explores the heretofore unknown world of genteel fussiness. But though G.H. is as craftily outrageous as Depp’s pirate, the Coens' have plopped The Professor down in all the wrong settings. He just doesn’t fit. Did Mark Twain fall through a time bubble (perhaps the same one that dropped Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile?) and land at Mrs. Munson’s door? What the hell is a plantation owner doing in the 21st Century and why isn't he carrying a large bucket of original and delicious chicken?
The Professor’s band may not really be much for playing “church music”, but the Coen Brothers directing team is. In signature Coen’s style they earmark The Ladykillers with an eclectic mix of toe tapping gospel, which even were people not already pumped from what seems to be becoming almost obsessive Jesus viewing, would send even the most George Carlinish among us humming their way out of the theater. For the Coen’s it’s all in the details and their musical breakdowns are plumb full of them. The best musical moments of the film come courtesy of Mrs. Munson’s church choir, which though the have no other practical function in the film than to sing, develop a personality all their own.
The result of all this is fairly entertaining, just for the straight faced sincerity with which Hanks ably carves out his ridiculous role. This is a movie struggling for artistic merit and personality, using the same kind of homespun, musical charm that the Coens captured in O Brother Where Art Thou but with much less inspiring effect. Sure, every inch of the movie oozes symbolism and unusual detail. Garbage scows sail the Mississippi like angels of light, an easily missed cross proudly adorning their stern. Fog flows across the mighty river, washing away sins and heralding the way to uh… garbage heaven. Even the most minor character is filled with oddity and individuality. But it’s a strain to achieve the kind of precise, lunatic restraint they’re going for. Other than a continuous stream of polite audience chuckles, The Ladykillers never quite manages anything overly memorable. The fact that it’s a remake of a 1955 comedy starring Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness doesn’t help, since even though I haven’t seen it, I feel confident that the original was probably a lot better.