Busting a cap: Coens shooting blanks

If you're familiar with the 1955 English comedy The Ladykillers, you'll think it an unlikely vehicle to be remade as a gospel musical. That's why Joel and Ethan are the Coen Brothers and you're not.

The gospel songs (executive produced by T Bone Burnett) prove to be almost the only good news and the only life in the first hour of this sluggish comedy, which is highlighted by one of Tom Hanks' worst screen performances.

He has the Alec Guinness role of "Professor" Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, whose flowery (and incessant) speech in an artificial drawl is supposed to charm both the audience and his temporary landlady, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall).

He's chosen her house for its proximity to the Bandit Queen, a Mississippi riverboat casino with an underground counting room that can be easily tunneled to from Mrs. Munson's root cellar.

Mrs. Munson is a regular church lady who donates $5 a month to Bob Jones University. Her living room is dominated by a portrait (which changes expression whenever a cheap laugh is needed) of Othar, her late husband of 46 years.

The Professor has four associates: Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), the inside man who has a custodial job at the casino; the General (Tzi Ma), a stoic Indochinese with a Hitler mustache and an ever-burning cigarette; Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), a Jack of all trades, especially pyrotechnics; and Lump (Ryan Hurst), the brawn of the bunch.

Introductions, including lazy Sheriff Wyner (George Wallace), take up more than 20 minutes before we hear about The Plan. The next 40 minutes are taken up with digging the tunnel and pulling off the caper, possibly the simplest in screen history. It makes buying a bus ticket look difficult.

The problems– and the humor– arise 10 minutes after that, when the title comes into play. Mrs. Munson gets wind of the robbery and Gawain comes up with the idea to "bust a cap in that old bitch's ass." After far too much time is spent establishing the Professor as an Edgar Allen Poe fan, it's odd that he would be opposed to burying the landlady alive.

The R rating on The Ladykillers is primarily for the dialogue of Wayans and some minor African American characters, which sounds like white people's ideas of how black people talk. Joel and Ethan Coen, who officially share director's credit for the first time although they've always co-directed, tend to make everyone sound a little unnatural, but in this case it's borderline offensive.

If you've seen the trailer, you know it's funny the first time Mrs. Munson complains about "hippity-hop music" and less so the second time. In the movie she does it at least four times. That's how desperate the movie's comic elements are. That and a gratuitous pun about "blowing the shofar." And the whole thing about Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

My hunch is that a hole opened up in Tom Hanks' schedule and this film was rushed into production before it was ready. That would explain the relatively short time between the Coens' last film, Intolerable Cruelty, which was much better, and this one. If the next one isn't a lot better, those gaps could get a lot longer.