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When filmmakers remake a classic, they often are tempted to both retell the original story and simultaneously to comment on it with the perspective of the present, the new view. They're tempted to add to the plot, to thicken the textures, to introduce subplots, and try to 'update' the original in the expectation that newer will be better. It's a temptation to be avoided at all costs, and today we are presented with a perfect example of how to turn a wonderful old comedy into a disaster. It's an appalling version of the British comedy "The Ladykillers," this time written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, who of all people should know better.
Before we get into what's wrong with "The Ladykillers," let's look at comedy in general. Unlike a tragedy, or in fact any worthwhile drama, which by definition contains the interrelated threads of complex relationships that resonate with us in the audience, and which we respond to because it touches us on more than one level, comedy is linear. That is, we can only laugh at one thing at a time. We laugh at a joke, we laugh at a pratfall, we laugh at a tense situation and at an unexpected release of that tension, we laugh at a comic performance by a character whose words or actions amuse us.* In a movie you cannot wink at the audience to let them know you're being funny; to be self-conscious is to kill the wit. Comedy in film requires a straight face; it dies when it thinks it's funny.
The 1955 "The Ladykillers," written by William Rose and directed by Alexander Mackendrick, was simple and straightforward, the story of a group of robbers who work from the basement of a conveniently-located house that happens to be owned by a dotty old lady. Their leader is Alec Guinness, pretending to be a professor; he tells her that his accomplices are joining him to play chamber music in her basement. What made the film work was the simplicity of the story: they think she's found them out, so she must be killed, except that every attempt ends with the accidental, comically unexpected death of the attempted murderer. Period. It helped that Guinness was a great mimic whose persona here was delicious and his timing perfect, and that the group included Peter Sellers and Cecil Parker. We were delighted just to watch them work. The old lady, underplaying all the way, was the experienced actress Katie Johnson. The script never tried to attach more baggage to the film than that.
Here, though, the Coens have given us back stories of every one of the robbers, as though we care about their previous lives. We don't; we just want to see what happens to their plan. But Tom Hanks, trying to put on a decadent Tennessee Williams accent, is an embarrassment; and his group, including the comic Marlon Wayans, is forced to deal with more plot exposition than any three comedies should have to bear. It takes forever to get us to the crime, and the old lady here (Irma P. Hall) doesn't even realize what they're doing in her basement until the film is near the end. So the attempts to kill her are not even necessary for the plot. There is also a running joke that is so mortifying I'm amazed there was no grownup around the set to kill it. The old lady, black and by no means stupid, gives money each month to Bob Jones University - in actual fact the last bastion of race segregation in the country. To compound the wrongheaded joke, at the end of the film the University ends up with the proceeds of the robbery. If you think that's funny you'll really enjoy the movie.
*If you're interested, my book "Beyond Popcorn: A Critic's Guide to Looking at Films" discusses at some length two examples of how great comic moments are built: One is Buster Keaton's struggle with a cannon in his film "The General;" the other is the Vessel with the Pestle sequence in the Danny Kaye film "The Court Jester." <! new pasted review ends on line above>