The Ladykillers

By Ewan McDonald

(Herald rating * * *)

O brother, it's been hard to be a Coen Brothers cheerleader for the past couple of years, since moviemaking's most eccentric outsiders decided to come inside and make movies that would be accepted in the multiplexes as well as the art-houses.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) were offbeat gems. Intolerable Cruelty (2003), a vehicle for George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones, and this remake of a 1955 Ealing Comedy with Tom Hanks paraphrasing Alec Guinness' masterpiece, are little more than fluff.

The writing-directing pair have moved the story from grey, post-war London to the Deep South today. Hanks plays Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, a southern gentleman — think Colonel Harland Sanders — who rents a room from Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall) because its basement is the perfect place for his chamber music group to practise.

Actually, they're a gang of five — Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans, see review below), the casino insider; Garth Pancake (J. K. Simmons), the bumbling bomber; the General (Tzi Ma), a former Viet Cong tunneller; and Lump (Ryan Hurst), the dumb muscles. Using music tapes as a cover, they are going to tunnel into the next-door Bandit Queen Casino and remove the cash.

Marva (Irma P. Hall), a pillar of the local evangelical church who don't allow smoking in the house and chats to her dead husband's picture, will become a problem and, regrettably, have to be eliminated. This is regrettable for two reasons: (a) the professor is a softie at heart and (b) by this time she's stolen the film with an outstanding comic performance.

Hanks, having fun in a larger-than-life comedy role, is given some wonderful dialogue and scenes to play with, but towards the end you realise that this is a tacked-together accumulation of episodes and mismatched characters rather than a fully realised movie. And, while Intolerable Cruelty, for all its faults, was a genuine pastiche of a glamorous 50s romantic comedy, you wonder what the purpose of this unnecessary remake might have been. Oh, that's right: a big-screen hit.

This far into the history of the Coen brothers, and this far into the development of the DVD, you know not to expect a "making-of" or a "behind the scenes" or a commentary track from the notoriously reticent pair.

On a disappointing disc the major features are musical: The Man Behind The Band, in which instrument maker Daniel Ferrington describes his art, and The Gospel Of The Ladykillers, where the Abbot Kinney Gospel Choir, Rose Stone and the Venice Four, perform full-length versions of anthems used in the film. The Slap Reel is a curious repetition of takes of a scene in which Wayans is slapped and smacked with a pillow by the widow woman as Hanks falls about in the background.

DVD, video rental now

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