Band of robbers

“The Colonel’s chicken can’t beat General Hanks’ alligator hocks.”

“The Colonel’s chicken can’t beat General Hanks’ alligator hocks.”

Rated 5.0

Tom Hanks, looking like a chubby John Wilkes Booth and speaking with a Southern accent that defies description, delivers the funniest performance of his career in The Ladykillers, the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen. A remake of the 1955 Alec Guinness/Peter Sellers British comedy, the Coens move the action to the Deep South, where gospel music flows and garbage boats haul trash downriver as curious ravens gaze on. Actually, garbage boats and ravens end up playing rather large roles in this marvelously strange movie.

Professor G.H. Dorr (Hanks) is looking for “a room to let” as he shows up on the doorstep of one Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall). Dorr is a polite Southern gentleman displaying mannerisms and diction more suitable to a Civil War-era inhabitant than a modern-day man. He charms his way into Marva’s root cellar where, he claims, he and his four cohorts will practice church music on their antique instruments.

As it turns out, Dorr is a scheming crook who looks to tunnel his way from the cellar to a nearby gambling boat where a large bounty awaits. His gang includes a foulmouthed janitor from the casino (Marlon Wayans), a demolitions expert with irritable bowel syndrome (J.K. Simmons), a silent and evil Asian man with a Hitler mustache (Tzi Ma), and a man-child football player they just call Lump (Ryan Hurst). Together, they form one of the most massively incompetent bands of thieves to grace the screen since John Goodman and William Forsythe knocked over a hayseed bank in another Coen movie, Raising Arizona.

This is broad comedy with a capital “B,” and it will undoubtedly turn a few people off when Hanks starts one of his lengthy, Edgar Allan Poe-inspired monologues. Coen fans have witnessed this sort of extreme bizarre caricature before (Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona), and it’s the kind of comedy that requires a little patience. Those who sat stone-faced during O Brother, Where Art Thou? might be equally perturbed. Those who can’t get enough of the Coen comic universe, where the world is a lavish cartoon rife with visually imaginative sight gags and exaggerated mannerisms, will laugh hard.

This film, which marks the first time Ethan Coen takes an official director’s credit alongside brother Joel, takes the brothers back on track after last year’s slight misstep, Intolerable Cruelty. That divorce comedy, although based on their original script, felt like a rehash of old movie plots and done-to-death comic set pieces. Oddly enough, their Ladykillers remake feels as fresh as anything the siblings have done.

Give Hanks credit for committing to a bizarre characterization and never letting up. He hasn’t had a chance to disappear into a role like this since Forrest Gump, and he grabs the proverbial bull by the horns. Hall is an unstoppable elderly force as the woman who wants no “hippity-hop” in her house, and Simmons, so scary as the white supremacist on HBO’s Oz, shows a gift for droll comedy. Wayans finally delivers on the promising talent he displayed in Requiem for a Dream, essentially doing a more relaxed riff on his character from Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.

The abovementioned garbage boats are part of an oft-repeated joke that never loses its hilarity. Thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins (shooting his eighth Coen film), objects being thrown off a bridge toward these boats have a tragic beauty quite befitting the quirky film. The Ladykillers has a legitimate shot at being this year’s funniest movie, and the only one with an English Bulldog wearing a gas mask.