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Suth'n Comfort

Tom Hanks steals the Coens' latest by playing " get this " funny.


The Ladykillers is the second film in as many years made by Joel and Ethan Coen to fill space between pet projects. But even their recent paychecks reflect the brothers' restlessness: Their movies have grown more manic and scattered, more fun than they ought to be and more engaging than they would have been in anyone else's hands. Last year's Intolerable Cruelty, an unloved romantic screwball comedy with George Clooney as Cary Grant and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Rosalind Russell, began as work-for-hire and ended up a Coen brothers movie only after their World War II project with Brad Pitt was firebombed. Now comes this other reclaimed child, an adaptation of the 1955 Ealing Studios comedy that starred Alec Guinness as a crook posing as a professor to dupe an old lady into picking up his motley gang's stolen loot.

Beloved in England, the original has no such prominence in the States; it's free to be tinkered with. Indeed, this adaptation shares only premise and title with its ancestor, wrapping Tom Hanks in Guinness' professorial splendor and moving the setting to the timeless, dreamlike American South of the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Not since he was a spry, up-for-anything comer has Tom Hanks appeared so giddy onscreen, and it's a welcome relief. For too long, the once comical Hanks has been weighed down by the burden of stature, the spark and exuberance that initially made him a star smothered. Hanks doesn't have to carry the whole movie -- in his Kentucky-fried getup, looking slightly older than his 47 years, he doesn't appear able to carry anything over 15 pounds -- but he holds it together because his jive-talking Mississippi con man, Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III, Ph.D., isn't played like a put-on.

Dorr, boss of a rinky-dink band of safecrackers and criminals, may indeed have studied at Oxford and may indeed be a professor of Poe and dead languages, as he insists early on. But there's more to him than meets the ear. Hanks doesn't condescend to the character; rather, he's a smart man who just happens to run up against a cagier woman, Mrs. Munson, played by Soul Food's Irma Hall with engaging crankiness. Mrs. Munson, who sends $5 every month to Bob Jones University, takes particular delight in complaining to the sheriff (George Wallace) about rap music by repeating, "I left my wallet in El Segundo," a chorus she's heard and can't forget.

Dorr's gang, hired through a help-wanted ad to tunnel into a riverboat casino's vault, is a mismatched band of miscreants, dolts and gangstas: Marlon Wayans as Gawain MacSam, foul-mouthed inside man; J.K. Simmons as Garth Pancake, a demolitions expert in Jack Hanna's khaki short-shorts; Tzi Ma as The General, a doughnut-store owner with Hitler's mustache and temperament; and Ryan Hurst as Lump Hudson, a college football player who's taken a thousand too many blows to the head. Longtime Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins introduces Lump by putting the audience inside his helmet; you feel the concussion coming on.

Using Mrs. Munson's basement, they tunnel easily enough into the casino's vault but must deal with the old lady once she finds out they aren't actually Renaissance-period chamber musicians training downstairs. The movie spends its second half trying to decide which of the gang will have to off Mrs. Munson. Here, the movie devolves into morbid slapstick tinged with an odd kind of sentimentality.

The Ladykillers fits snugly among the Coens' lighter and breezier movies -- the ones you forget after you see them once and begin to appreciate and finally adore the more often you revisit them. (Who didn't think The Big Lebowski was an innocuous throwaway the first time?) It doesn't help that the opening twenty minutes, during which the brothers introduce the blundering thieves one by one, are so brilliant they almost make the rest of the film a disappointment. After a while, the movie just seems to run out of breath.

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