As in last year's "Intolerable Cruelty," the Coen Brothers again prove that they can show an audience a pretty good time while taking them nowhere in particular.
Their new comedy is a chuckle-worthy couple of hours in the company of the florid Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. (Tom Hanks), a Sorbonne graduate and professor of languages -- or so he claims. A new tenant in the home of the God-fearing Widow Munson (Irma P. Hall), Dorr spends much of the film explaining away the odd behavior of the motley, multiethnic crew he's brought in to rehearse Renaissance music in his landlady's root cellar. In reality, they're all thieves plotting to pinch the proceeds from a floating casino, and hiding this fact from the nosy matron takes vast reserves of eloquent misdirection. The terminally affected G.H. specializes in serpentine sentences that frequently devolve into a Muttley snigger; while the portrayal is an unabashed caricature, Hanks has paradoxically never seemed so at ease in a role ruled by dialect. It's a performance to savor.
In remaking a 1955 comedy of the same name (it starred Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers), the Coens have changed its locale from Britain to modern-day Mississippi, which they see as a beachhead in the clash between "hippity-hop" licentiousness -- as the scandalized Missus Munson disparages it -- and the faith-based philosophy that a doily looks good on just about everything. If you laugh at the very use of the phrase "root cellar," this is definitely the movie for you. Just don't expect much narrative momentum from G.H.'s perpetually squabbling brigands, who do little more than plumb the comedic potential of clearly defined traits, including stone-faced professionalism (Tzi Ma), passive-aggressive conniving (J.K. Simmons) and foul-mouthed slack (Marlon Wayans). This "Ladykillers" often plays like an improv exercise undertaken by performers whose sense of character far outstrips their ability to build plot.
The uniform beauty of Roger Deakins' cinematography somewhat obfuscates the point that the movie is a study in conflicts: black vs. Caucasian, young vs. old, gospel vs. rap, gentility vs. street 'tude. The Coens have bet the house on the idea that a soul-stirring speech is never so funny as when it's followed by a curt "Fuck you," and they're 100 percent correct -- even if the friction they generate is the kind that provides little lasting heat.