The Coen brothers, arch-pranksters of American cinema, are in eclipse. The deeper they burrow into parody and pastiche the flimsier their movies look, and the less they seem to care. If Fargo and The Big Lebowski look like their creative (increasingly distant) twin peaks, the downward slope starts at the cod-Odyssean ramble of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, steepens with the monochrome emptiness of The Man Who Wasn't There and perfunctory screwball of Intolerable Cruelty - and slides to a halt with The Ladykillers, a flat remake of the 1955 black comedy.
It is difficult to see why they thought it might be a good idea in the first place. Alexander Mackendrick's original is only a minor jewel in the Ealing crown, and its dim lustre resides mostly in the period portrait of King's Cross station and its shabby precincts. The Coens transposed the story to the American South, and on the way apparently mislaid most of its seedy charm.
Even the way it has been lit by their cinematographer Roger Deakins suggests this will be an altogether sunnier picture of criminality at work. In the Katie Johnson role is Irma P Hall as Mrs Munson, a Baptist churchlady whose life revolves around her cat and bothering the police with complaints about delinquent black youth and their "hippity hop" music - "songs with the titles spelt all funny". At her door arrives a Southern gentleman, Professor Gold-thwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks), seeking a room to rent and a cellar for his friends to rehearse music: "Mostly Renaissance," he assures her.
Naturally, the professor is orchestrating something rather different; his ensemble turns out to be a decidedly non-musical bunch of ne'er-do-wells who, under cover of their rehearsals, will dig a tunnel into the vault of a dockside casino and relieve it of the week's loot. Not the most scintillating idea for a crime caper, even if it has a pedigree.
Hanks is the star turn and, reprising the Alec Guinness role, is the best (perhaps the only) reason to see the picture. With his goatee, frock coat and dainty bow tie, he looks like a young Colonel Sanders, and he speaks with the same baroque elaboration as John Goodman in The Big Lebowski and George Clooney in O Brother. He refers to Mrs Munson's cat, for example, as a "felix domesticus" and smoothes over any awkwardness by quoting from Poe's "The Raven".
Sadly, Hanks' confreres are no match for Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker et al. For one thing, they hardly seem to belong in the same era as the professor. Marlon Wayans plays the foul-mouthed dude who's the gang's inside man, and Ryan Hurst is a football jock of perilously low intelligence; these two could pass for contemporary characters, but the explosives expert (JK Simmons) with the handlebar moustache and the General (Tzi Ma), a veteran tunneller from South-east Asia, seem to have been imported from the 1970s.
The Coens have earned a licence to vary modes and manners for comic effect, but no movie of theirs has ever felt so rootless, or weightless. Or, I'm afraid, less comic. You might be faintly amused by Mrs Munson's determined misapprehension (she hears the Sorbonne as "sore bone") or by the general's cigarette-swallowing trick, though even the most loyal fans will be pushed to find the recurring case of irritable bowel syndrome as hilarious as the film-makers would like. Even the bungled heist has been done more wittily, in Palookaville and Welcome to Collinwood.
The only other way this remake might have succeeded was for the Coens to insinuate the kind of suspense that fuelled Blood Simple and Fargo. Violence that skirts the grotesque has long been a speciality of theirs, and when they tip their hat to Guinness's famously spooky silhouette outside the old lady's door we settle in for a dose of something nasty and bracing. For a while, Hanks takes up the challenge: the sudden, huffing laugh he affects is pure pantomime villain, and the genteel mannerisms hint at something altogether more predatory. Yet the film hardly knows what to do with him. The supernatural chill that causes the cat to shudder when the professor knocks at the door is completely forgotten: it's part of the joke that Mrs Munson has no fear of him, but we should have. Instead, he seems a vaguely avuncular figure who doesn't quite understand how his scheme is falling to pieces.
"Troubles never singly come," drawls the professor, misquoting Hamlet. The Ladykillers has troubles all right: sluggish where it ought to be nimble, tame where it ought to be creeping us out. The energy and invention of former Coen days are almost entirely absent. Following the original's morbid endgame, the corpses begin to pile up, each one thrown from a bridge on to a rubbish barge as it chugs down the Mississippi, and each time it seems to confirm a kind of indifference on the Coens' part: this plot is trash, this film is a joke, we don't care whether you take it or leave it. One gets the impression that more and more of their audience would prefer to leave it, and I don't blame them.
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