Friday, March 26, 2004
It's refreshing to see Tom Hanks return to comedy.
After more than a decade of validating his talent as one of Hollywood's finest dramatic actors, Hanks revisits the style for which he was first known -- and for the initial half of his career, for which he was ONLY known.
With "The Ladykillers" -- a remake of the fondly remembered 1955 British comedy -- Hanks finds a role that is extra peculiar and relentlessly hilarious. He plays Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III, a professor in classic languages who has a fascination with all things arcane. Dorr also seems rather in love with his own native tongue, and this human thesaurus often strings together cryptic monologues when a simple "yes" or "no" would probably do.
(He's the only man who could converse with Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons" and appreciate all the antiquated references.)
Dressed in the kind of gentlemanly uniform that Mark Twain would find too formal, the professor is part unctuous intellectual, part silver-tongued charmer and part Foghorn Leghorn.
It's never clear if he REALLY is who he claims to be, but what's certain is that when he decides to rent a room in the Mississippi household of elderly Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), it's not to play renaissance chamber music.
Dorr and his ragtag gang of "musicians" have decided that the easiest way to rob the Bandit Queen riverboat casino is to tunnel into its underground vault through sweet Marva's root cellar. Concealing their activities by pretending to rehearse while Marva is busy with church, the plan seems foolproof. All they have to do is make sure the landlady never catches on to the scheme.
But to quote the professor's favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe, "Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster/Followed fast and followed faster."
Writing-directing team Joel and Ethan Coen also join Hanks in making a return to pure comedy, a style they arguably haven't attempted since 1987's "Raising Arizona." Their penchant for memorable camera tricks and sight gags that reference other source material is on full display here. (The high-angled opening shot of gargoyles perched atop a bridge that surveys a river barge as it travels to a landfill has its own River of Styx allusion that becomes clear as the movie progresses.)
But the Coens' most blatant cinematic signature resides in their kooky characters.
Tom Hanks and the Coen brothers make a welcome return to pure comedy. This update of the 1955 British caper finds Hanks as a verbose professor whose gang plans to rob a riverboat casino by tunneling in through the cellar of his elderly landlady (Irma P. Hall). Although it's a simple conceit, the oddball touches keep the film afloat.
The five men involved in the heist are the most oddball, uncomplementary unit of thieves ever to find themselves partnered in crime. The character names alone set the table: There's Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), a former Freedom Rider and current explosives expert with Irritable Bowel Syndrome; Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), a foul-mouthed street hood who savors the idea of being the gang's "inside man" until he learns that means becoming a janitor at the casino; and the General (Tzi Ma), a retired South Vietnamese combat veteran and current doughnut shop owner.
Then there's the requisite muscular clod named Lump (Ryan Hurst), whose introduction is among the film's funniest moments. The Coens shoot a point-of-view sequence looking out from inside the lummox's helmet during a collegiate football game.
This bunch feigning to rehearse with their baroque instruments whenever Marva opens the cellar door is a classic sight.
No one will accuse "The Ladykillers" of being groundbreaking material for the Coens, though.
Narratively, it's a straightforward caper flick based on rather familiar material. (The 1955 version earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.)
But like Hanks' verbose professor, the Coens continue to justify some of the simplest ideas through heaps of complexity. While that might not be the best idea when robbing a casino, it appears to work when crafting an eccentric comedy.