Tom Hanks has a ball playing bogus professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D., a silver-tongued, snaggle-toothed Southern gentleman with the soul of a poet and the heart of a thief. This is as far from Gump, the holy fool, as an actor can get. And Hanks seizes the moment. Don’t let the professor fool you just because the poems of Edgar Allan Poe roll mellifluously off his tongue. He means to rob a riverboat casino in Mississippi and murder Marva Munson (a glorious Irma P. Hall), the old, widowed black woman who gets in his way. Just the idea of Hanks teaming up with the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, those masterminds of the dark comic soul in Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Fargo, sets off delicious shivers of anticipation.
Sadly, The Ladykillers never lives up to its promise. In updating the 1955 British comedy of the same name (with Alec Guinness as the professor), the Coens turn the film into an academic exercise. It’s as if the brothers admired the Swiss-watch precision of the original and wanted to take it apart to see how the pieces would work in a new setting. As an experiment, it’s fascinating. But damn if the fiddling doesn’t suck the life out of the laughs.
Hanks’ plummy charm is a major compensation as he mixes it up with his ragtag gang: Lump (Ryan Hurst), a dumb football player; the General (Tzi Ma), a Vietnamese tunnel rat; Pancake (J.K. Simmons), an explosives expert; and Gawain (Marlon Wayans), the inside man at the casino. As the men use Mrs. Munson’s cellar to dig a tunnel to the casino, they pretend to rehearse on baroque musical instruments. Mrs. Munson won’t have that “hip-hoppity” music, though the Coens use it on the soundtrack, along with gospel tunes that stir things up like the script rarely does. As bodies pile up — the ladykillers are more adept at dispatching one another than their target — the film means to evoke giggles out of the grotesque. But you’ll have to watch the original film to see it done right.