The Coen brothers phoned this one inIt’s been a private theory of mine for years that Tom Hanks would make a first-class villain. Somewhere inside that decent, modern-day-Jimmy-Stewart, American-Everyman persona of his is a flinty-eyed killer biding his time. You can tell.
Glimpses of Bad Tom showed up in a marshmallowy 1996 comedy (which Hanks wrote and directed) called “That Thing You Do,” in which he played a promoter for a record label. Although that character turned out to have a gooey center, most of the time he operated according to calculated self-interest, and he was capable of a freezing stare that you certainly never saw in “Apollo 13.”
Technically, Hanks plays a bad guy in “The Ladykillers,” which opened last Friday in Korea, but it’s the bumbling, comic sort of bad guy. I only mention it because there’s not very much to say about “The Ladykillers,” a tepid disappointment from the previously reliable Joel and Ethan Coen, and there’s space on this page that needs filling.
A remake of a 1955 British comedy, it stars Hanks as a loquacious Southern con man who dresses like Colonel Sanders and talks like he’s got a couple of marbles in his mouth. He’s assembled a handful of eccentrics to rob a riverboat casino in a Mississippi town, by renting a nearby room from a kindly, Bible-believing widow (Irma P. Hall) and tunneling into the casino’s vault from the widow’s root cellar.
There’s a rather sweet pathos to the band of would-be heisters, particularly Hanks’ character, who, although a con artist and not completely averse to murder, also seems to be a frustrated classicist of some kind. He makes misty-eyed speeches about honor and seizing the day to his semi-comprehending, eighth-rate henchmen, who attend strategy sessions at the Waffle Hut (“Madam, we must have waffles”) and whom he recruited by way of a newspaper ad. There’s a nicely understated theme having to do with the corrupting effects of self-delusion, and as sometimes is the case in the Coens’ movies, there seems to be a harsh Old Testament justice at work in the fibers of the universe.
But mostly it’s just a comedy that isn’t funny enough. The band of crooks is too by-the-numbers colorful ― a ne’er-do-well homeboy (Marlon Wayans), a martial arts expert and Inscrutable Asian (Tzi Ma), an incompetent demolitions man (J.K. Simmons) and a dumb muscleman (Ryan Hurst) ― and they don’t play off each other particularly well.
Hall, as the widow, is charming enough, but the character is basically the same churchgoing, whup-your-bottom black matriarch you’ve seen in several dozen other movies. Though the Coens’ stock in trade is creating an atmosphere that’s so strange that it’s almost tactile, the closest they get to that here is in a single, hypnotic gospel choir scene. The writing is good enough that there’s a medium-sized laugh every few minutes, but medium-sized is about as big as they get.
If it were the work of some newcomer and not the Coen brothers, who delivered up “Fargo,” “Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink” and other near-masterpieces of oddness, “The Ladykillers” might strike a person as an OK comedy with evidence of serious talent floating around in it. Instead, it might have you wondering whether they subcontracted some of the work out to an intern.
Comedy / English
by David Moll