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[whitespace] 'The Ladykillers'
Southern Discomfort: Tom Hanks and Marlon Wayans plot a nefarious crime in 'The Ladykillers.'

Zen Coens

The Coen brothers make peace with the 1955 classic caper comedy 'The Ladykillers'

By Richard von Busack

IN THE SMALL-TOWN Mississippi of today, a shady and conniving professor of classics (Tom Hanks) seeks lodging at an elderly widow's home. He and his associates--posing unconvincingly as an ensemble of early-music players--are actually burglars, with their eyes on the cash vault of what the professor terms a "riparian Gomorrah": a riverboat casino. The Coen brothers' understanding of the original 1955 classic, The Ladykillers, isn't just in superficial details, such as the way Hanks has revived Alec Guinness' panting snigger and the flash of his unclean ogre's teeth, or the way Marlon Wayans plays a modern thug as opposed to Peter Sellers' unsavory but forlorn teddy boy.

The Coens have homed in on the essential conservatism of the tale. The Victorian old lady (Katie Johnson) is played by a vast Baptist churchwoman (Irma P. Hall, Big Momma in Soul Food). And she represents the triumph of solid values against the modern ambiguities--winningly voiced by Tom Hanks, in some of the most delicious, insinuating double-talk since W.C. Fields died. (One of the professor's colleagues--a lethal ex-ARVN colonel, played by Tzi Ma--even demonstrates Fields' trick of being able to hide a lighted cigarette in his mouth.)

The Coen brothers and their musical specialists Carter Burwell and T-Bone Burnett should have received medals for popularizing our buried musical heritage in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. And The Ladykillers soundtrack should be another cross-over hit; it has more gospel music than in any movie that isn't actually a documentary on gospel. The tendency to repeat jokes to death is a symptom of our gross modern age, as are the irritable bowel syndrome gags. More worthwhile innovations include deadpan use of Mississippi's flatness, as apropos as the way the Coens used Arizona's plains. The pop expressionism of the filmmakers is expressed in a symbolic Gehenna for sinners, a Garbage Island where barges unceasingly deposit their trash. And I love the lonely moment where the professor's Poe-haunted soul--represented by his cloak--flaps away with the seagulls. It's oft heard that there's not enough moral, Christian entertainment in the movies. Here it is. Damned if it isn't funny, too. PS: Spot the Raymond Chandler joke in the first reel (it's from Lady in the Lake).

The Ladykillers (R; 104 min.), directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen, photographed by Roger Deakins and starring Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall and Marlon Wayans, plays valleywide.

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Web extra to the March 31-April 6, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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