Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Ladykillers

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 April 2004 at Loews Boston Common #7 (first-run)

Not counting the Toy Story movies, it's been about ten years since Tom Hanks really let 'er rip. He's done a couple of comedies in that time, but even in those, he's mostly played it straight. And despite all the awards he's gotten in that time, all the money he's made, all the respect he's earned, he hasn't looked like he's been having fun since yelling that there's no crying in baseball.

He's having fun here. He plays Professor G.H. Dorr as someone who aspires to be the devil incarnate, all honeyed words and a grin that indicates the sheer joy he takes in deception and crime. The Coen Brothers allow - nay, encourage - him to chew on the scenery all he wants, and the result is Hanks's most energetic non-animated performance in years. It goes a little far at times (his outbursts of laughter are more peculiar and disturbing than funny), but it's a joyful enough performance to earn some slack. He's given a good foil in Irma P. Hall, the chruch-going, god-fearing widow who owns the house from which Dorr and his gang intend to tunnel their way to a casino's holding vault.

Ah, the movie this could have been if not for the gang. Each member of the gang seems to belong on a different planet, let alone movie: Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans) is a loud gangsta-wannabe, Garth Pancake is played by J.K. Simmons as an even-toned oddball, "The General" (Tzi Ma) is a ruthless former Viet Cong leader (now running a Mississippi donut shop) sporting a Hitler mustache, and Lump (Ryan Hurst) the incredibly dim muscle of the operation. The group just doesn't jell, though; aside from Hanks, only Simmons is really amusing, and even he becomes obnoxious, spending much of his time arguing with Wayans. As a result, the parts of the movies spent on the gang is mostly tedious and abrasive. MacSam's lines, in particular, are trite and vulgar, especially in contrast to Dorr's absurd but entertaining elocution.

It's too bad that this takes up so much of the film's run-time, since there's wit elsewhere. Like many Coen comedies, the movie is peppered with small, off-kilter characters and bits which are often funnier than the main story. Pancake on a commercial shoot, the security guard who laughs like a fool, Dorr ordering waffles, and the widow's cat, who spends much of the movie looking on as the gang goes about their crime, as disinterested as only a cat can be.

I've got a month of free Netflix use lying around here somewhere; maybe I'll use it to see the original Ladykillers. That movie is regarded as a classic (it had a head start, having Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers in the cast); after seeing this remake, I find myself curious about a movie good enough to remake, but which the Coens couldn't get a handle on.

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