Coens' remake is criminal

If the title "The Ladykillers" sounds familiar, you've probably seen the 1955 original, a classic English comedy about thieves contending with an aged landlady who may spoil their criminal scheme.

The new version raises the question all remakes provoke: Isn't it better to redo bad movies, which need improving, instead of good ones, which don't?

More specifically, can the likes of Tom Hanks and Marlon Wayans replace comic geniuses like Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, who gave the original so much panache? And can the ingenuity of British filmmaker Alexander Mackendrick find an equivalent in the uneven creativity of Joel and Ethan Coen?

Hanks is no Alec Guinness, but he's a talented comic performer despite the fairly serious roles ("Cast Away," "Catch Me if You Can") that he's been pouring most of his energy into recently. It's nice to see him returning to the humorous gifts he displayed so deftly in movies like "Splash" and "Big."

He's the biggest asset of "The Ladykillers," playing a bogus musicologist who's masterminding a plan to rob a casino. Barging into a sleepy Mississippi town, he rents a room from an African-American widow and starts burrowing from her cellar to the casino's stash of cash. Among his accomplices are a black youth who works at the gambling club, a white athlete with more brawn than brain, and a Southeast Asian man with a menacing stare.

It's hard to imagine anyone outdoing Hanks as the oily Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, whose purring accent masks a devious mind. Ditto for Irma P. Hall as Mrs. Munson, the landlady who wonders why five men claiming to be a Renaissance-music quintet keep evading her requests for a recital and occasionally blowing up her basement.

If the other cast members aren't so appealing - and they aren't - it's less their fault than that of the Coens, whose screenplay is drenched in off-putting stereotypes. Every black person, from the well-meaning widow to the chief of police, is oblivious, ill-mannered, or both. The athlete is an idiot, the Asian is sly and inscrutable, and every Southerner in sight (which means everyone on screen) is so slow-thinking that you can't imagine how they manage to get up in the morning before it's time to go to bed at night. To be sure, "The Ladykillers" is all about dim-witted people in over their heads, and the Coen version is an equal-opportunity insulter, mocking its characters regardless of race, creed, or color.

Still, it's insulting when such savvy filmmakers expect us to laugh automatically at four-letter words, bathroom humor, and caricatures as crude as they are unoriginal. At its best, "The Ladykillers" soars above its own worst instincts, especially when Hanks and Hall take over the action. The camera work is always inventive, thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the soundtrack sets up an amusing clash between hip-hop and gospel music that's great fun.

With all this in the movie's favor, it's too bad the Coens have chosen to aim most of their humor below the belt, not above the collar.

Rated R for violence and vulgarity.

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