The Ladykillers' plot observes a heist going awry, but also follows O Brother as a kind of slapstick morality tale. Not unlike the Coens' cornpone odyssey, The Ladykillers' crazy-quilt scripting stitches earthy comedy to religious allegory, broad stereotypes to stirring music. The pieces don't come together as seamlessly as they did in their previous film, but the Coens' quirky craftsmanship turns The Ladykillers into a diverting doodle on one of O Brother's minor observations: The devil is a white man, though in this story, a foolish one.
Irma P. Hall plays Mrs. Munson, a God-fearing widow with a voluminous wardrobe of floral dresses and church hats. She pesters the slothful sheriff (George Wallace) with trivial complaints, but becomes the Lady Who Cried Wolf after a would-be criminal mastermind knocks on her door.
Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks) gives every appearance of being just a finicky Southern gentleman with a weedy Van Dyke. He only wants to rent her spare room and use her root cellar as a rehearsal space for his musical chums. But the Professor's cohorts aren't musicians at all. They're a rag-tag clutch of crooks bent on robbing the subterranean cash-sorting room of a Riverboat casino, which docks conveniently close to Mrs. Munson's house.
The Professor's cohorts include Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), a gung-ho equipment man; The General (Tzi Ma), an "Indochinese" tunneling expert; Lump (Ryan Hurst), the slack-jawed, muscle-bound work horse; and Gawain (Marlon Wayans), a foul-mouthed hip-hop fan. Their biggest obstacles come not from the robbery's risks or their mutual contempt, but from Mrs. Munson and her cat, who turn out to be unexpectedly -- and at times unwittingly -- formidable adversaries.
We can first thank the Coens' remake simply for renewing interest in the original. The Ladykillers of 1955 might not be the most famous of Ealing Studios' many enjoyable comedies, but it features one of Alec Guinness' funniest roles. His eye-popping Professor leers over a snaggle-toothed overbite like a tweedy Lon Chaney vampire.
Hanks' interpretation follows Guinness' lead, and both give the kind of performance that you want to imitate afterward. Hanks' accent drips honey as he delivers the Professor's antiquated locutions: "We must all have waffles forthwith!" He gives the role zany flourishes -- a hissy, hyena laugh, fake teeth with an incisor askew -- but never loses control of them.
By changing the original film's little old lady from white to black, the Coens don't just "Americanize" the story but introduce a racial theme. Hall embodies a familiar kind of poor-but-proud African-American church lady, but she's never the butt of the film's jokes. Though a dotty blabbermouth, she retains an integrity that's not snowed by the Professor's schemes.
More racial tensions simmer around Gawain. When he loses his casino custodial job for hitting on a guest, he immediately accuses his supervisor of racial discrimination. When Pancake reveals he was a Freedom Rider in the Civil Rights era, Gawain couldn't care less. Indifferent to history but quick to cry "prejudice," Gawain embodies the worst of modern racial politics. But the film draws all its characters as equally cartoonish, and only Wayans' shrill acting makes the role offensive.
The Coens haven't entirely recovered their sense of humor following Intolerable Cruelty's belabored lack of laughs. They devote too much attention to cheap running jokes, like Pancake's irritable bowel syndrome, or the way Mrs. Munson's husband's portrait changes expression to suit the action. It's like the filmmakers want to draw fans of Eddie Murphy's Klumps movies.
Yet the Coen brothers retain their pitch-perfect ears for soundtrack music, and The Ladykillers does for black gospel choirs what O Brother did for bluegrass. The film includes some roof-raising gospel choruses at Mrs. Munson's church and snaky hip-hop variations on religious standards during larcenous montages.
The righteousness of African-American music signals how the film's cultural symbols fall down racial lines. The Professor isn't just a duplicitous white man, but the mouthpiece of dead white males. He teaches antique languages, prefers the Greeks and Romans to the Bible and uses Renaissance music as his gang's cover story. He even wows Mrs. Munson's friends by reciting Edgar Allen Poe. The Coens don't mean to explode the Western canon but to cast suspicion on those who use it for the wrong reasons.
The mishaps at The Ladykillers' climax call for a Rube Goldberg series of disasters but turn out more rushed and less inventive than you'd expect from the Coens. They do construct an ingenious recurring image of a garbage scow as implacable as the ferry on the River Styx. Not all of The Ladykillers' ideas prove so memorable, but the Professor's eccentric hoodlums make an amusing bunch of doomed antiheroes. To tweak one of O Brother's songs, it's fun to see them go down to the river to prey.