It’s great to know that Joel and Ethan Cohen love Alexander Mackendrick’s wonderful 1955 black comedy so much that they’ve chosen to remake it in an American setting. But it’s not much fun to watch the result, because they’ve performed major surgery on William Rose’s subtle, refined old script, and the operation has not been successful. The title of the Minnesota brothers’ transformation of the droll, understated British original could be “The Ladykillers in Big Momma’s House”–and therein lies the problem. Though it’s made with their customary visual finesse, the picture surrenders much too frequently to the modern taste for crudity and raucousness in place of the original’s deadpan wit and charm. It winds up seeming a film virtually at war with itself.
In the 1955 picture, dentally-challenged Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) rents an upper-floor room in the home of sweetly oblivious old widow Louisa Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), from which he and his comrades in crime (Cecil Parker’s stuffy major, Herbert Lom’s old-line mobster, Danny Green’s good-natured lug and Peter Sellers’ nervous young Teddy Boy) execute a bank robbery. They keep her in the dark about what they’re doing by pretending to be a string quintet, repeatedly playing a record of the famous Boccherini minuet; but she also proves the unwitting key to Marcus’ clever scheme to transport the loot beyond reach of the law. Of course, in the end things go awry, and in attempting to kill Mrs. Wilberforce to cover their tracks, the gang members dispatch one another instead.
In the Coens’ refashioning, set in a small Mississippi river town (an effort, perhaps, to recapture the magic of their best film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”), Marcus is transformed into Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks), a debonair southern aristocratic type distinguished primarily by his white suit, hideously florid language and a tendency to giggle. He’s planning to rob the underground vault where a gambling boat keeps its cash, and rents a room in the house of elderly widow Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) in order to tunnel there from her root cellar, which he and his gang–inside man Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), explosives expert Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), Vietnamese tactician The General (Tzi Ma) and dumb-as-a-rock footballer Lump (Ryan Hurst)–pretend to use as rehearsal space for their Renaissance music group. (Curiously, although the instruments seem to be mostly winds, the first piece they put on the phonograph to deceive Mrs. Munson is that same Boccherini minuet for strings.) The whole business about using the woman to transport the loot is jettisoned in favor of a series of slapstick episodes that endanger their ability to pull off the robbery. Some of them are merely jokey–like Gawain’s getting fired from his casino job and having to inveigle his way back into the good graces of his boss (Stephen Root)–but others have a distinctly violent side, like an explosion that costs Pancake a thumb. And there’s a running gag involving the repeated escape of the old lady’s cat, which is the Coens’ surrogate for the parrot that Mrs. Wilberforce coddled.
The weakness of this new “Ladykillers” doesn’t result from the decision to make such changes, but from the nature some of them take. The parrot-to-cat alteration, for instance, is actually a plus, because the feline is such a personable sort, figuring in the picture’s last gag, and the whole thumb business, while decidedly grotesque, is pretty funny. But most of the innovations are on the minus side of the ledger. The characterization of Dorr as an overslick wordsmith is apparently designed to repeat the joy of George Clooney’s fast-talking Ulysses McGill from “O Brother,” but though Hanks tries very hard to be weirdly amusing, he doesn’t even come close to matching the model; Dorr quickly grows tiresome, and his flowery diction a tedious stunt instead of a source of laughs. Similarly, making Gawain–the counterpart of Sellers’ Teddy Boy–a typically toilet-mouthed brotha (overplayed, as usual, by Wayans) who gets into it with “Big Momma” Munson (enacted almost schizophrenically by Hall, often very nicely understated but frequently too broadly) is a miscalculation; their routine, which is much too high-pitched, is simply at odds with the rest of the picture. The officious Pancake, the replacement for the major of the earlier film, is a better fit, and he’s played with controlled boistrousness by Simmons, but the idea to have both him and his girlfriend suffer ostentatiously from irritable bowel syndrome, and then to have the affliction loudly interrupt the plot at key points, seems more appropriate to a lesser Adam Sandler vehicle than a Coen Brothers film. The General and Lump, meanwhile, exhibit nothing like the happy quirks of their counterparts from Mackenzie’s version; the latter is just a blank-faced dullard to whom Hurst brings no appreciable charm, and as played by Tzi Ma the former endlessly repeats a single old bit–swallowing a lit cigarette whenever the smoke-hating Munson appears on the scene–that’s mildly amusing until the fifth of sixth time it’s used. (Speaking of musty gags, the habit of cutting to a picture of the late Mr. Munson, with the expression on it changing in reaction to events on screen, is another that’s past its expiration date.) And while one can understand why the writer-directors wanted an elaborate musical sequence in Mrs. Munson’s bible-thumping church to add some exuberance to the proceedings, the scene nevertheless seems like a totally arbitrary insertion, as if an out-take from “The Blues Brothers” had gotten mixed into the footage by mistake. Meanwhile, one waits in vain for a final gag about Bob Jones University–to which Munson is unaccountably devoted– to serve as a topper at the movie’s end, but it never arrives.
The only thing really outstanding about “The Ladykillers,” in fact, is its look; this is a far flashier, more visually intoxicating picture than the plainer 1955 version. Once again a Coen Brothers film looks like a million bucks (though it surely cost many times that), with masterly production design (by Dennis Gassner) and art direction (by Richard Johnson), and cinematography by veteran Roger Deakins so gorgeous that some of the exteriors, in particular, are genuinely breathtaking. The episodes that are staged on a preternaturally empty bridge from which bodies are dropped onto the deck of a huge flatboat hauling garbage to an island dump, for example, really capture the mixture of ghoulishness, humor and beauty that the whole picture aims for but, unfortunately, rarely achieves.
With “Intolerable Cruelty” and now this film, the balance of elements that seemed effortlessly right in previous Coen Brothers pictures like “O Brother” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is off. Perhaps “The Ladykillers” was a labor of love for the Coens, but very little of the affection they have for the original comes through in a film that, despite some inspired moments, is alternately arch and crude Happily, Mackenzie’s version is still available to demonstrate how it should be done