Fools and thieves
Coen brothers deliver another dark-humored farce
A Coen brothers movie that’s a remake of a British comedy from 1955 sounds like a rather unlikely prospect. But when you hear that the original was about an oddball criminal caper and that the Coens have worked race, religion, the American South, some rollicking roots music and a dose of grisly humor into the mix, you know the thing ain’t necessarily a lost cause.
The original, which featured Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers, was something of a cult item among Anglophiles circa 1960, but it has been something less than a household name for subsequent generations of moviegoers. But the Coens are concerned less with a remake than with transplanting the tale and its blithely deadpan dark humor into the cockeyed local color and flamboyant eccentricity that is one of their specialties.
The Coens don’t have a cast to match Alec Guinness and company, but nearly everything else about their version gives the lie to the notion that remakes are always inferior to the original. What was droll and perverse in Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 version becomes broadly farcical and brash with the Coens. And the new version has the expert manic exuberance of Tom Hanks and Irma P. Hall to put things over with contemporary audiences.
Hanks is the leader of an oddball gang using rented rooms in the house of an ultra religious widow (Hall) as headquarters for their scheme to spirit a fortune in cash out of a nearby riverboat casino.
These comically erratic thieves include a foul-mouthed casino janitor (Marlon Wayans), a pompous demolitions man (J. K. Skinner) who suffers from irritable-bowel syndrome, a chain-smoking Vietnamese “General” (Tzi Ma) who wears a Hitler mustache and runs a donut shop, and a colossally dull-witted football player (Ryan Hurst).
In the Coens’ blithely anachronistic approach, Wayans is a flaky hip-hop type, while Hanks is an erudite, rhetoric-spouting heir to the Southern gentility of an earlier century. Hanks’ “Professor” recites Edgar Allan Poe, and as the sanity of his character comes increasingly into doubt, the film looks more and more like an updated Poe pastiche. The landlady’s adoration of Bob Jones University and her tirades against “hippety-hop language” make for the more pungent social ironies in the film’s giddily absurd sub-American panorama.
The title, it should be added, is a jokey misnomer. In both versions, there are no ladykillers in either the literal or the figurative sense. And that becomes one more element in this dark-humored farce.