Since their humble beginnings with low-budget noir feature Blood Simple (1984), Joel and Ethan Coen?s movies have slowly infiltrated our popular culture. The Coen Brothers? films ? as they have come to be known - may not take hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office nor pick up all the Oscars going, yet it seems everyone has a favourite movie picked from their eleven-feature canon, be it Fargo (1996), Barton Fink (1991), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) and the rest.Is it their black sense of humour that strikes such a deep chord with audiences? Or their heightened sense of the absurd and fearless command of cinema language gleaned obsessively from over one hundred years of film? Questions many critics are sure to have asked themselves when attempting to analyse the Coens? unique appeal, but ones that don?t concern us at all when we sit down to be spellbound by one of their peculiar offerings. Their latest is a remake of The Ladykillers, the ?comedy of errors? that was to mark the last of the famous cycle of comedies made at the Ealing studios in England. Starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, in addition to being a fantastically choreographed screwball comedy, it was a stinging critique of the changing social, political and class climes of 1950s England.There is no such subtext in the Coens? rendition of The Ladykillers, which has been uprooted from a gloomy London suburb and set down in a sunny small town in America?s south. You get the feeling that in fact the only mission involved for the filmmakers was to see just how far they could push screen ?dumbness?, looking at their cast of eccentric crim characters. The Coens? love affair with dumb bad guys is of course a long and very public one, having pioneered some of the most ?intellectually challenged? characters ever to grace the screen in movies such The Big Lebowski, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou and Raising Arizona. They just ?loves their dumb guys??Tom Hanks suits up as dumb guy No. 1, playing a Southern gent who thinks he?s very smart but - as we discover early on - isn?t. Hanks? Professor Dorr is the mastermind of a shambolic scheme to relieve said small town of its stash of loot. He rents a room from the formidable Mrs Munson (screen veteran Irma P. Hall), a big-bosomed, Church-going Southern mama who throws a giant spanner into the professor?s works. She also give ?what-for? to his band of not-so merry men, whom he recruits to do his dirty work: hip-hop janitor Gawain (Scary Movie? s Marlon Wayans), Garth Pancake (great character actor J.K. Simmons), The General (Hong Kong actor Tzi Ma) and ?Lump? Hudson (We Were Soldiers? Ryan Hurst). This guy can barely speak. It is an ambitious return to comedy for Hanks, who, while beginning his film career in comic roles hasn?t made one since voicing Toy Story 2 (1999). Unfortunately he isn?t quite up to it, appearing a little awkward and uncomfortable in this demanding role. One can?t help wonder how a more extroverted performer like George Clooney (who has worked with the Coens on their last two films) would have fared as the eccentric and verbose Professor (better probably). After a decade in drama, Hanks has become a softer and more internal actor; he more than struggles with this high-flying material. It is left then to Irma P. Hall to steal the show which she does in her enigmatic performance, matched only by the superb gospel music in which the film?s soundtrack is soaked. With its crazy characters, rhythmic language and mythological symbols (the recurring garbage barge in becomes a death barge by film?s end), The Ladykillers does contain flashes of the Coens? usual panache and genius. But it does feel more like an exercise these cineastes had to get out of their system rather than a fully-hatched film. Plus it is not a very good remake, making it perhaps the weakest of the Coens? work to date. What The Ladykillers amounts to then is not much more than a bunch of kooky dumb characters trapped in kooky dumb story. There is certainly no broader subtext to buoy them nor the grand twists and spectacular jokes that have made many previous Coen Brothers movies so special. That said I?d rather watch a bad film by the Coens, two of the most inventive filmmakers of their generation, over a bad film by anyone else. Everyone has an off day. Can?t wait to see their next movie?
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