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'Ladykillers' doesn't die despite slow spots

Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2004

''The Ladykillers'' looks like a Coen brothers movie, with its inventive camera angles and magical imagery from Roger Deakins, the genius cinematographer who also shot the Coens' ''Fargo,'' ''O Brother, Where Art Thou?'' and ''The Man Who Wasn't There,'' among many others.

It sounds like a Coen brothers movie, with the lyrical cadence of its dialogue and a soundtrack of gospel songs collected by producer T Bone Burnett, who gave ''O Brother'' a similarly rootsy, Southern feel.

And, unfortunately, it runs out of steam after about an hour like the last Coen brothers movie, ''Intolerable Cruelty.''

Until then, this remake of the 1955 comedy caper starring Alec Guinness is wacky, quirky, and has a terrifically twisted eye for detail.

Tom Hanks, playing his first truly bad bad guy, is a marvelous mixture of Foghorn Leghorn and Sideshow Bob as the pretentious leader of a gang of thieves who use an elderly woman's cellar to tunnel into a casino vault.

Hollywood's perennial nice guy has played flawed characters in other films including ''A League of Their Own'' and ''Road to Perdition'' but they weren't evil to the core. There was always hope for redemption.

Here, the name of his character Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. says it all. He's unctuous and manipulative, and every mellifluous word that drips from his mouth is a smooth lie except when he's reciting Edgar Allan Poe.

''Madame, you are addressing a man who IS quiet ... and yet ... NOT quiet,'' he promises Mrs. Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), the kind, churchgoing widow from whom he rents a room on a tranquil street in a small Mississippi town.

It's a performance that moviegoers will either embrace unabashedly or reject wholly as being too mannered and self-conscious, though it's a perfect fit for Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote, directed and produced the film.

Hall, meanwhile, avoids caricature and shows real poignancy as the feisty landlady, who proves herself to be a far more formidable adversary than she initially appeared.

The supporting roles, though, are too cartoonish even for a Coen brothers movie, where surrealism is the norm.

Professor Dorr has told Mrs. Munson that he'd like to invite the members of his band over to practice church music in the cellar, but these guys are really his partners in crime.

Marlon Wayans is a ghetto stereotype as Gawain MacSam, the ''inside man'' who works as a janitor at the casino. J.K. Simmons, best known as Schillinger on HBO's ''Oz,'' is cluelessly enthusiastic as explosives expert Garth Pancake (though the scenes with his life partner, Mountain Girl, are a hoot).

Ryan Hurst does little but grunt as Lump, a football player who's the muscle of the operation. And Tzi Ma says even less as The General, the chain-smoking strategist.

It's a promising premise, but like ''Intolerable Cruelty'' in which George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones married and manipulated each other in a tediously repetitive cycle the film's main joke gets old.

Garth's irritable bowel syndrome, which slows him down at the most inopportune moments, isn't even funny the first time. And since when do the Coens have to resort to bathroom humor to get a laugh?

But the most clever character of all is Mrs. Munson's mischievous tabby cat, Pickles, who steals the movie and more in the end.

''The Ladykillers,'' a Touch-stone Pictures release, is rated R for language, including sexual references. Running time: 104 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 No one under 17 admitted.



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