The Coen Brothers flopped with last year's comedically clumsy and questionably hammy "Intolerable Cruelty," and now that they have repeated and amplified the same arched-performance mistakes in "The Ladykillers," I am beginning to understand what it is about Joel and Ethan's movies that their detractors dislike so much.
The characters in the Coens' recent comedies have frequently been oblivious to the world beyond their whimsical capers, and in these last two pictures even the protagonists have become objects for audience ridicule, making them poor surrogates for getting us involved in their stories.
Tom Hanks takes that bullet in this loose remake of a 1955 British laffer about a band of crooks inadvertently foiled by the little old landlady who rents them a room. All toothy, affected mannerisms and blabbering balderdash as the endlessly loquacious supposed mastermind of the criminal enterprise, his character is nothing but caricature -- an over-educated, old-fashioned, pocket-watch-and-hankie type Southern gentleman who goes by the tongue-tying moniker of Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D.
He and his band of equally eccentric reprobates pose as classical musicians who want to rehearse in the root cellar of the house where Dorr has secured room and board from a church-going, gospel-singing, small-town Mississippi widow (Irma P. Hall). Of course, what they really want to do is tunnel from her basement into the nearby vault of a riverboat casino operation.
But only lip service is paid to this heist (courtesy of Dorr, whose floridly erudite yammering soon inspires one to tune him out), as the Coen brothers are far more interested in milking the foibles and idiosyncrasies of their cast of lowbrow clowns. They include Marlon Wayans as a bellicose, foul-mouthed thug with mommy issues, R.K. Simmons ("Spider-Man") as a demolition expert with irritable bowel syndrome (bathroom emergencies and cartoonish facial contortions abound), Tzi Ma ("The Quiet American") as a retired Vietnamese soldier of fortune with a Hitler mustache, and Ryan Hurst as Lump, an inept football player and their very low-IQ muscle man.
The film has its moments of cleverness, like Lump's introduction -- a first-person view from inside his football helmet as he's repeatedly tackled and his legs fly over his head. But the plot is all incidents and incidentals (how will the "musicians" get out of playing for Hall's ladies' church club?) with very little natural flow, and many awkward moments as the Coens spend a lot of energy building to laughs that stumble off the screen earning at best listless smiles.
"The Ladykillers" opens well with an amusing shot from the head of a gargoyle on a Mississippi River bridge, overlooking barges as they deliver trash to an island dump in the delta (which will come into play later as the film's one good running gag).
The movie is golden for its first ten minutes or so as the dry and droll, barrel-bodied Hall ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," HBO's "Soul Food") launches into its one great performance as the landlady -- a Bible-quoting, "Yes Ma'am"-demanding, white-glove and Sunday-hat-wearing, Black Southern Baptist spitfire who makes a scene in the town's quiet sheriff's office signing out a long-winded complaint about the "hippity hop" music of her neighbor's teenage son.
"You know what they call colored people in those songs?" she demands, shaking a righteous finger in the air and shaking her plump figure like it came out of a Jell-O mold. "That boy's hanging by a thread over the pit!"
She then waddles home on her bowed legs to write donation checks to Bob Jones University (enamored with its religion, ignorant of its racism) and talk to the portrait of her dead husband (which gets a few laughs of its own with cut-away shots of its changed expressions as the crazier plot points unfold).
But when Hanks turns up on her doorstep, his puffed-up introductions juxtaposed by ominous chords playfully running through the score, Hall becomes regulated to comic relief (by, say, repeatedly slapping Wayans for cursing in her house) from the larger comic failures.
As they did with their similarly -- but far more fluently and effectually -- screwy 2000 comedy "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," the Coens have plied this film with a lively soundtrack that may well out-gross the movie (then it was old-timey bluegrass, this time it's hand-clapping gospel). But unlike the soundtrack -- and unlike "O Brother," which inspired you to root for its daft prison-escapee criminal heroes -- "The Ladykillers" just doesn't have any soul.