| A remake of a minor classic of the British cinema, The Ladykillers (1955) was one of those old chestnuts in which sudden plot twists stun the audience with their sheer audacity and yet delight us with the results. Why the Coen Brothers, perhaps the most original filmmakers working in modern cinema wanted to remake this film is beyond me. To do so they enlisted Tom Hanks, who is alongside the other Tom, that being Cruise, the biggest star in the business.|
At his best Tom Hanks is among the finest actors in cinema history. His performances in Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994) won him back to back Academy Awards for best actor, and by rights he should have won again for both Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Cast Away (2000), and at least have been nominated for both Road to Perdition (2002) and Catch Me If You Can (2002). While I am not sure when it happened, Hanks quietly became one of the most reliable dramatic actors in the business, leaving behind his comic roots to tackle more serious fare. The results have made him one of the most bankable and beloved actors of his generation, all rightly so. Hanks has the innate ability to quietly get under the skin of the character allowing Tom Hanks the personality to disappear.
What I most admire about Hanks is the willingness despite his stature in the industry to take risks. Rather than rest on his laurels, he seems consistently willing to grow as an actor, to expand his substantial talents as much as he can. What he did with Cast Away (2000) was extraordinary, carrying that film for the middle third with very little dialogue and mere body language. His under appreciated performance as a gangster in Road to Perdition (2002) not only anchored the film, but was a magnificent performance of dark melancholy and regret. Among the qualities in actors I greatly admire is the willingness to take a risk.
Hanks takes a huge risk in The Ladykillers, and while it does not quite come off, I still admire what he was trying to do with the role. Actors learn more from failure than success, which is true of us all, and I am sure Hanks learned a great deal as an artist with this performance. This was a reminder that Hanks is very human and as guilty of making wrong choices as anyone out there.
In the outstanding career he has had, I cannot remember him giving a confounding performance; one where you want to scream at the screen and ask, “What are trying to do?” He does here.
As the shady professor, a con man by trade Hanks misses the mark, going for charming and snaky and coming off quite ordinary. Portraying Professor G.H. Dorr, Hanks goes over the top in the role, affecting a Southern accent that often sounds like one Laurence Olivier might have attempted had he been portraying the role. There is fussiness about his performance that obviously gave him a great deal of actors business, but does not enhance the performance or the film. I was reminded by what Robert Duvall had accomplished in A Shot at Glory (2001) his soccer film in which he portrayed a Scottish soccer coach, a vanity project that Duvall had always dreamed of doing. I was always aware of Duvall giving a performance, something I never thought would happen. The same is true of Hanks here, we are consistently conscious he is “acting” which of course is precisely what he has not done his entire career. In fairness going over the top and getting away with it is difficult to pull off, Jack Nicholson being the best in the business at getting away with it.
Dorr and his crew rent a room from an unsuspecting old lady, Marva Munson, portrayed to perfection by veteran actress Irma P. Hall. They tunnel under her home into the vault of a river boat with intentions of stealing the pay load, until the old girl stumbles upon what they are doing and makes it very clear she will turn them in.
At that point, the film vaults off into classic Coen Brothers slapstick with dark humour and nasty violence but for the first time in a Coen film, it all seems forced. The only saving grace for the film is the superb performance of Hall as the tough old landlady who discovers Dorr’s fiendish plot. She energizes the film because she is so real, so authentic and delivers what Hanks usually does…an honest performance.
The end result is that The Ladykillers, circa 2004 is a major disappointment for all concerned. .