After King Lear, how could Kurosawa make Ran? After Austen and Emma, what do we do with Clueless?
And yet, Joel and Ethan Coen® have re-imagined The Ladykillers, the cherished 1955 Ealing comedy based on William Rose's London stage play, in which Alec Guinness -- beset with a crooked smile, a risible overbite and a Draculan countenance -- leads a band of thieves through an almost cartoon heist, only to be foiled by a little old English lady who, despite her faÃ§ade of tranquility, makes babies cry and the sky rumble.
The locale now is the American South -- the Coens' milieu in Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- and the era, along with its characters, is contemporary. So is the Coens' branded humor. The rest of the original British movie is deftly, if broadly, intact: the gang's guise as musicians, the policeman who thinks the old lady is off her rocker, and of course, the passing train -- or in this case, a garbage barge -- which provides the perfect place to dump all those dead bodies.
The story goes something like this:
Urbane, erudite and terribly articulate, Professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks, in a very enjoyable character performance) shows up one day at the home of a big, buxom, bow-legged, God-fearing old black lady, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall, at once hilarious and poignant), looking to rent a room. He's on sabbatical from his work as a dead-language scholar, and he's an amateur musician, interested in Renaissance compositions played on their original instruments. Might Mrs. Munson perhaps have a spare room, and a place -- say, her root cellar -- where he could rehearse with his fellow artistes?
How convenient that the cellar is just an underground tunnel away from the office that houses all that money from the town's riverboat casino. ("A riparian Gomorrah," the professor calls it to appease her. She just glowers at him.) And how lucky that he has so many helpful friends: a foul-mouthed, bony-assed, funky-haired janitor (Marlon Wayans) in the casino's office; a techno-geek Hollywood explosives expert (J.K. Simmons); a deadly and taciturn general (Tzi Ma), from quaint old Indochina, who speaks (rarely) in movie-pidgin English; and a punch-drunk ex-football player (Ryan Hurst) for muscle.
Their heist -- which requires them to get through a door made of "redoubtable Pittsburgh steel" -- goes well, except for when the explosives guy gets the shits. ("The most difficult part of irritable bowel syndrome is educating the public," he says when he returns from the toilet, "30 pounds lighter.") But then Mrs. Munson catches wind, and so they have to kill her -- which is, naturally, easier said than done.
There's one thing that most people don't know about the original Ladykillers: It really isn't all that funny. It's charming, and it's brilliantly acted, but it has a quasi-Rube Goldberg plot, and the only reason they can't kill Mrs. Wilberforce is because they're all just so damned English. (She calls their crime "embarrassing," the thieves call her discovery of it "humiliating.") And so the classic film becomes a black comedy about the daft civility of British culture and its utter inability to deal with disturbance. (For all his crookery, the simpering Dorr is clearly an educated man, whereas Guinness was just a crook.)
In the Coens' version, the laughs are much bigger and often on the edge, although the plot's contrivances still don't quite make sense. It opens with Mrs. Munson complaining to the sheriff (George Wallace) -- asleep on the job in a town so lazy that cobwebs cover the keys to the jail -- about that "hippity-hop music" she hears some kids playing. "Do you know what they call colored folks in those songs?" she snarls. Twice, she tells him, then adds: "Thirty years after Martin Luther King! In the age of Montel!"
Like a lot of the humor in The Ladykillers, this is a black thing. But of course, the Coens are white (at least, they look white in their photographs). Their decision to create a mixed-race update is all part of their wonderfully bookish Northern liberal smart-ass white-boy point of view, which they employed so well in Blood Simple and O Brother (and so shrilly in Raising Arizona).
Some of their satire in Ladykillers goes places you'd expect to see in Barbershop, or on Fox or UPN. They get away with it because they're at once authentic and absurd, funny and humane and intelligent. Their movie is about language, and the way words define and proscribed us: the elevated lexicon of Professor Dorr, the saucy demotic Biblical idiom of Mrs. Munson, the blitzkrieg of f-bombs from Wayans (for which he gets slapped repeatedly by his hostess-cum-surrogate mom). The Coens play with words just like Pickles, Mrs. Munson's wiry tiger cat, plays with the severed finger that belongs to one of the thieves.
After reviving folk and bluegrass in O Brother, the Coens turn this time to glorious gospel, performed in Mrs. Munson's sweltering church by a hand-clappin' choir in gold robes, and often played on the soundtrack. Once, though, a bit of music that begins with a Renaissance twang bleeds slowly into gangsta rap and then into gospel, a clever way to underscore the movie's cultural hybrid of language and humor. I thought at first that the Coens were fools to even think of remaking The Ladykillers. But now I remember that the fool always speaks the truth.