The Heist From Hell

"Inside man" Gawain (Marlon Wayans, left) and Pancake (J.K. Simmons) at each other's throats in The Ladykillers.
The Heist From Hell

By John DeFore

The Coen Brothers deliver 'that Coen Brothers feeling' in spades

Most people don't know that the new movie from the Coen Brothers is a remake. It's based on a 1955 English film starring Alec Guinness, who was a brilliant comic actor before he took up dueling with Darth Vader.

The kind of people who do know the film's source also know that the Coens' previous effort, Intolerable Cruelty, was their first to originate with someone else's screenplay (which the brothers rewrote). These fans are understandably concerned that two (or is that one?) of the most original voices in movie history have lost their muse.

But like the eponymous screenwriter in Barton Fink, who is told, "The important thing is, we all want it to have that Barton Fink feeling," the Coens can scarcely avoid making a movie their own. Or at least they haven't done so yet, and if the occasional bit of outside inspiration is necessary for them to produce a movie every year or two, that's an awfully low price to pay for another dose of the giddy idiosyncrasy that comes with any Coen Brothers film.

Here Tom Hanks is a ridiculously eccentric Southern gentleman who takes up residence in the home of an elderly black lady, where he hopes to use the root cellar to rehearse with his chamber-music ensemble. The musicians are actually thieves, though, who intend to tunnel from the cellar to a nearby casino vault; they keep the landlady distracted by playing classical recordings while taking pick and shovel to the loamy walls of the rehearsal room.

Trying not to give too much away, the film's title is an ironic reference to what happens once Hanks' plan is uncovered by the watchful eyes upstairs. The heist's aftermath isn't as large a chunk of the tale as it was in the original film, but it's still responsible for much of the laughter.

If the last act - which is like a set of variations on the Wheezy Joe sequence in Intolerable Cruelty - uses slapstick shock for humor, the first hour or so relies on dialogue. Hanks' Professor G.W. Dorr unleashes such a honey-tongued stream of courtly babble that just interpreting it is a game; he's easily the most outrageous lead character in any Coen film, and Hanks' delivery (full of self-conscious mannerisms like a laugh that's one-part Old South, one-part Peter Lorre) is endlessly weird.

The Ladykillers

Dir. & writ. Joel & Ethan Coen, William Rose (orig. screenplay); feat. Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons (R)

Although she has fewer showcase scenes, landlady Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) is Dorr's rhetorical equal: As the movie begins, she walks into the town's Mayberry-like sheriff's office to unleash a dazzling tirade against a neighbor whose affection for Tribe Called Quest records doesn't sit well with her. The minister in Mrs. Munson's congregation is pretty eloquent himself, elucidating the word "smote" with motivational enthusiasm.

The only people who don't do fare well in the speech department are Dorr's henchmen. Marlon Wayans and J.K. Simmons are the only two with many lines, and their continual bickering never reaches the levels of hilarity achieved by John Goodman's sniping at Steve Buscemi in The Big Lebowski.

This is the first Coen Brothers film to have so many black actors in its cast, and some viewers may walk out of the theater feeling a little itchy about the movie's racial attitudes. That's nothing new: From the maintenance man in the Hudsucker building to the blind seer in O Brother, the filmmakers routinely have let stereotypes do some of their characterization for them.

But that's equally true for Jews, Minnesotans, trailer-park white folk, and Texas billionaires, who are almost invariably cartoonish exaggerations - Miller's Crossing aside, there simply aren't a lot of believable human beings in the Coen Universe. That hasn't seemed to bother audiences up until now, and there's no reason it should here. There is nothing disrespectful about the Coens' depiction of Mrs. Munson's tiny Baptist church, unless you take umbrage at the choir leader's mini-bouffant; the gospel music playing throughout the film is glorious and obviously meant to be heard that way; in fact, the old lady gets the last laugh on the multi-racial crew out to get her.

As frequently as they skewer people of every race in their movies, it's entirely possible that the Coen Brothers simply don't think much of human beings in general. So long as they keep giving us movies as entertaining as The Ladykillers, it's hard to see why we should care. •

By John DeFore