On an island located somewhere in the South, or at least the South of Joel and Ethan Coen's imagination, a Babel-sized tower of garbage reaches to the sky. Its role in The Ladykillers is too amusing to spoil, but it's no accident that the barge making its seemingly hourly delivery to the island moves with the grim deliberation of Charon crossing the Styx.
The Ladykillers remakes a classic 1955 British film directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Alec Guinness as a grim would-be criminal mastermind whose can't-fail heist encounters unwitting opposition in the form of a kindly old woman. Already as dark as London soot, the comedy hardly needed work to bring it in line with the Coen brothers' sensibility, but the remake moves to a beat of its own, one unexpectedly in sync with the gospel music dominating its soundtrack.
Playing a kindly, churchgoing widow prone to conversing with her dead husband and railing against the excesses of "hippity-hop music," Irma P. Hall fills the old-woman role. Living in a house within convenient tunneling range of a riverboat casino's none-too-secure vaults, she becomes the landlady to a self-proclaimed professor of Renaissance music played to white-suited perfection by Tom Hankswho, under the cover of music rehearsals, begins working with a grab bag of criminals (Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst) on a dig for the money.
In his first truly comedic role in years, Hanks summons up an unforgettable caricature of Southern gentility turned foul, a creation well-suited for filmmakers who have made rich caricatures their stock in trade. They aim most of their barbs at Hanks' inflated attempts at refinement and Hall's good-natured slow-wittedness. In the process, they go for more easy laughs than usual, but include wickedly sharp moments, too, as when Simmons' former Freedom Rider boasts of his past in an argument with ne'er-do-well Wayans, only to have his opponent proudly counter that he never votes.
For all the broad jokes and casual cruelty, however, a weirdly insistent sense of moral uprightness guides the film. A fire-and-damnation preacher warns about the riches of the world ending up as garbage, and the film takes him seriously (literally, even), while Hall's never-dimming beacon of virtue shines above it all. She may be behind the times and occasionally misguidedthe Coens make her devotion to Bob Jones University a running gagbut at least in The Ladykillers, it isn't good intentions paving the road to hell.