Tom Hanks stars as the charming but fiendishly eccentric Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III Ph.D.--a Southern gentleman and expert thief who masterminds a casino heist with a motley crew of goofy crooks. Setting up operations at the boarding house of the widowed Baptist-loving sassy Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall) Dorr convinces the older lady that he requires her cellar for his Renaissance-period music ensemble to practice. The band is in actuality his criminal team which plans to use the space to dig a tunnel into a riverboat casino and rob its safe. But with this oddball crew comprised of the hip-hop stylin' Gawain (Marlon Wayans) a janitor at the casino; ex-hippie and Irritable Bowel Syndrome sufferer Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons); The General (Tzi Ma) a stoic chain smoking tunneling pro; and Lump (Ryan Hurst) an ex-football player whose brains are in short order problems are bound to arise. God-fearing Southern woman Mrs. Munson is initially charmed (after all they're not playing that "hippity-hoppity" music as she calls it) but once she catches wind of their scheme the dastardly characters must find a way to dispose of her. But how?
Stepping in the shoes of the great Guinness who played an almost Phantom of the Opera version of the English gallant Hanks creates an over-the-top Southerner who's part William Faulkner part Colonel Sanders. An eloquent Edgar Allen Poe-quoting dandy Hanks wears antebellum all-white and speaks with antiquated turns of phrase that are supposed to be alternately appealing and anachronistically funny. Supposed to be. Though under the direction of Joel Coen who can wring an effortless inspired verbose Kentucky character out of George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou? Hanks' oddities are obvious at every turn. The performance is strained--right down to his goofy laugh--and unlike Guinness we never feel Dorr's underlying evil the element that made the original character so deliciously funny. This is a darkly comic character Hanks manages to make cute. The rest of the crew fares little better with the talented Wayans resting on easy "bust a cap in yo' ass" ghetto humor and Simmons' suffering one too many unfunny times from a bout with IBS (since when did the Coens resort to bathroom humor?). Hall is the saving grace here from back-talking her charges with gusto to giving a hilarious speech about the depraved elements of "hippity-hoppity music" to mistaking Dorr's dubious title of Ph.D. as "like Elmer Fudd?" she's a terrific comic foil. Too bad the cast didn't have enough stimulating material to bounce off her. The Coen brothers usually work expertly with caricatures carefully balancing cartoonish madcap with people we actually care about. From Nicolas Cage's brilliant Hy in Raising Arizona to Jeff Bridges's pot-smoking The Dude in The Big Lebowski to Clooney in the aforementioned O Brother they're the masters of broad. Here however they make a misstep in both casting Hanks (Billy Bob Thornton would have been more appropriate) and to a larger extent messing with a movie that didn't need messing. The original 1955 version (directed by Alexander Mackendrick and also starring Peter Sellers) is darker than the Coens' take which relies more on slapstick and lunacy. Nevertheless the picture is technically gorgeous with cinematographer Roger Deakins creating a perfectly sunny Southern town mixed with a gothic underbelly of doom and tuned to an enlivened Gospel music score. And there are funny bits for sure played out in that precise unique Coen rhythm but given their past and potential genius the Coens are certainly capable of better. The Ladykillers lacks what we've come to know them for--a killer comic instinct.