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(2004) (Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall) (R)

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Comedy: A group of unlikely con artists and criminals must decide what to do with an older, churchgoing lady when she stumbles upon their scheme of robbing a casino by tunneling from her cellar to its vault.
Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (TOM HANKS) is no instructor, but rather a conman and criminal who's determined to rob the floating Bandit Queen casino boat. The only problem is that its daily take is stored in a highly secure vault in the counting house located onshore.

Rather than go through the front door, however, the professor has decided to tunnel his way to riches and thus rents a room from Marva Munson (IRMA P. HALL). She's an older and sweet churchgoing lady who's complained so many times to Sheriff Wyner (GEORGE WALLACE) about so many trivial matters that he no longer pays her any heed.

Dorr easily convinces Marva that her cellar's earthen walls are acoustically perfect for his band to practice their gospel-inspired, baroque music. Among the players is Gawain MacSam (MARLON WAYANS), a casino custodian who will be their inside man; the stoic General (TZI MA) who has experience with tunnels; munitions expert Garth Pancake (J.K. SIMMONS) who brings in an outsider, Mountain Girl (DIANE DELANO), for help; and Lump (RYAN HURST), a somewhat dimwitted football player who will serve as their muscle.

Using a host of lies and distractions to keep Marva in the dark about their scheme, the team sets out to tunnel to the vault, break-in, and make off with the loot. When Marva stumbles onto their plot, however, the group must act before she turns them in to Sheriff Wyner. From that point on, they decide they must silence her lest their plan go awry, all of which leads to a series of unexpected, black comedy repercussions.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While it was extremely pivotal to the plot of the movie, one of the more memorable things about "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" was the terrific assemblage of the old school gospel songs. With the release of their subsequent film, it appears that the brotherly filmmaking duo of Joel and Ethan Coen are now fixated on the musical genre as it also dominates the soundtrack of the black comedy "The Ladykillers."

A contemporary remake of the classic 1955 film that starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, the film is a generally amusing if not overly imaginative or clever comedy that just so happens to feature a terrific gospel soundtrack. Fortunately, it fits the effort due to the plot concerning a bunch of criminals who try to use an unsuspecting but God-fearing, law-abiding, Church-going, southern woman in their scheme.

It also helps in making the film pleasant enough to sit through, although the lead actor isn't exactly a stranger in such matters. Yes, arguably the most beloved actor working today, Mr. Tom Hanks, takes over the Guinness role. The resultant performance - which returns Hanks ("Catch Me If You Can," "Road to Perdition") to a true live-action comedy for the first time since the 1980s -- is likely to divide critics and viewers alike.

Oddly dressed like a Southern gentleman from a past century and sporting both prosthetic teeth and a laugh best described as a hyperventilating hyena, the actor may likely draw as much derision as he does praise for this take on the character. He certainly seems to be having fun playing the part, but the material constantly feels beneath him.

In fact, and despite it needing to be the strongest element of the offering, the plot is one of the film's most disappointing elements. Considering that it's about a bunch of somewhat bumbling criminals having to deal with complications to their plan and needing to make up excuses for who they are and what they're doing, the plot isn't as clever, smart or, more importantly, hilarious as it could and should have been.

There are some funny moments -- particularly when the criminals eventually get their comeuppance in standard Coen black comedy fashion. I just kept wishing, hoping and expecting, however, that there would be more or that at least they'd be better. It doesn't really help that most of the players are caricatures or narrow character types. With the right touch, that might not have necessarily been a bad thing. Yet, those characters never really develop beyond their initial trappings and the Coens don't have enough fun with or poking fun at them.

That's particularly true regarding the most annoying and unnecessary updating of the source material -- the character played by Marlon Wayans ("Requiem for a Dream," "Senseless"). The original managed to be funny without resorting to a plethora of profanity. Yet, for some reason -- perhaps wanting or forced to appeal to a younger audience -- the Coens ("Intolerable Cruelty," "Fargo") have decided to infuse the proceedings with the street wise, profanity spewing character played by Wayans.

Had the 70 plus "f" words and more added some sort of comedic touch to the offerings -- think of Ruth Gordon in those "Any Which Way But Loose" movies -- that might have been okay. Unfortunately, it doesn't, and such language doesn't even fit in with the relatively benign black comedy murder attempts and deaths.

Beyond Hanks who at least makes his character interesting, the only other performer who truly succeeds at transcending the characters' stereotyping is Irma P. Hall ("Soul Food," "Beloved"). The veteran actress manages to bring enough true nuances to the role that she's both entertaining and believable. J.K. Simmons ("Hidalgo," "Spider-Man"), Tzi Ma ("The Quiet American," "Rush Hour") and Ryan Hurst ("We Were Soldiers," "Remember the Titans") get a few funny bits, but otherwise aren't as funny as they could have been had the script been better.

The other problem is the film's uneven comedy tone. Beyond the ruse and its related complications and ever-changing plans, there's the black comedy, some moments of crude humor (the always "reliable" sudden diarrhea gag) and the absurdist bits of having the expression of a portrait hanging on the wall constantly changing according to the situation. I would have jettisoned the last two in favor of the first pair, especially since the effort really only hits its stride late in the third act when the black comedy deaths start piling up.

Overall, the film is amusing and entertaining enough to warrant a recommendation and passing grade. Considering the talent involved in front of and behind the camera, however, it could have been so much better. "The Ladykillers" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed March 22, 2004 / Posted March 26, 2004

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