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Movies: Dandy Dodgy Lodgers

3 minute read
Richard Schickel

Band of Bozos? The Fellowship of the Dingbats? Dawn of the Brain Dead? Something along those lines might be a more telling title for The Ladykillers, wherein the Coen brothers merrily subvert that standard caper trope in which a bunch of guys tunnel their way toward a large cache of cash and, naturally, an even larger concluding irony.

The film is a very loose, very Americanized remake of the Alec Guinness comedy of 1955, with which it shares a title, a basic situation and not much else. Tom Hanks–sporting a goatee, a white suit and a mellifluous Southern accent–expertly essays the Guinness part as a criminal mastermind bent on separating a casino from its take. To this end, Hanks’ character, Professor G.H. Dorr, rents a room in a house owned by Marva Munson (the splendid Irma P. Hall). He thereby obtains access to the basement; ostensibly it’s a rehearsal space for his period-instrument group, but actually it’s a headquarters for a dig toward riches.

The professor talks an ornate game. But he could use a good personnel consultant. For his ill-chosen crew consists of Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), a symphonist of obscenities; a silent, deadly, chain-smoking Vietnamese convenience-store operator (Tzi Ma); a football-playing moron (Ryan Hurst); and, best of all, Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), a militant liberal, serenely overconfident of his skill with powder and fuses and, alas, afflicted by irritable-bowel syndrome, which kicks in at inopportune moments. Oh, almost forgot to mention this–most of them have hair-trigger tempers, which do not aid them in the swift completion of their appointed nefariousness.

The professor’s other mistake is underestimating his landlady. She peaceably loves her gospel church, her late husband’s memory and her current cat, Pickles. She may be an innocent, but she’s nobody’s dope, as the boys down in the cellar discover when they try to eliminate her sweetly prying presence.

We, meanwhile, are free to settle down with the Coens in their best environment, which is provincial America. Their most delicious films (Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) are populated by curiously likable boneheads, obsessively committed to miscreant conspiracies far too complex for them to really master. Opposing them are thwarting figures like Marva (or Marge, Fargo’s immortally sensible, pregnant, smart police chief) who appear at first glance to be simple souls but are, in fact, the salt of our earth–folks who have so internalized their morality that it comes out as just plain common sense, funnily understated. They can be bamboozled, but not for long. When eventually they restore order to the comically criminal confusions of Coen brothers movies, our pleasure approaches the sublime, as it does in The Ladykillers. –By Richard Schickel

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