The Ladykillers

There is no swearing permitted in the home of Marva Munson, an elderly, church-going African-American woman in a small Mississippi town. No smoking, either. And though it is not specifically mentioned, one assumes it is also forbidden for a band of thieves to use her root cellar as their base of operations.

So the cadre of criminals at the center of “The Ladykillers” are three-time offenders of Mrs. Munson’s regulations, and that subtle juxtaposition of the profane and the classy propels much of the comedy in Joel and Ethan Coen’s film, a remake of a 1955 British movie.

Witness the early scenes of Munson (Irma P. Hall) complaining to the local sheriff that a neighbor boy has been blasting “hippity-hop” music on his boom box, full of lyrics that use the N-word with shocking regularity. Then see Professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks), the very picture of Southern gentility, renting a bedroom in Munson’s little home, their conversation as polite as can be, hiding Dorr’s true plans, which involve digging a tunnel from Munson’s cellar to a nearby riverboat casino’s vault.

We cut then to a series of vignettes introducing Dorr’s cohorts for the heist, each scene more laden with profanity than the last, all reminding us how different these folks are from the simple, kindly Mrs. Munson.

The inside man, a shiftless casino employee, is Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans). The explosives expert is Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons), a gregarious fellow who does that sort of thing for TV and movies. For tactical issues, we defer to the taciturn General (Tzi Ma), and for sheer brute strength, we have college football player Lump Hudson (Ryan Hurst).

Dorr is the brains behind the operation, putting on the Southern gentleman front in order to charm Mrs. Munson. It is interesting to note, however, that Dorr’s persona is not an act. He is just as literate and verbose, and as cool as a mint julep, in front of his compatriots as he is with their landlady. Whether he is truly a professor or not, we don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

It is a typically Coens-esque film, set in the present but with a bucolic atmosphere that could put it in the ’20s, too. It boasts numerous amusing sight gags, visually appealing camera angles, and several recurring jokes, one involving a garbage barge that is handy for removing evidence quickly. And, as is typical for the Coen boys, even the minor, one-scene characters are quirky and memorable. (I shall always recall Walter K. Jordan as Elron, a rotund security guard who never stops laughing.) Even the characters’ names are funny, and I haven’t even mentioned Weemack Funthes or Fernand Gudge.

Look at the whole thing as a live-action cartoon, albeit one with very dark comedy, in which a harmless “victim” — in this case Mrs. Munson — is constantly targeted but just as constantly saved without realizing she was ever in danger. Every time something drops onto that garbage barge, I’m reminded of Wile E. Coyote falling off the cliff. It’s the Coen Bros. meets the Warner Bros.

Where I think the Coens have slacked off a bit is in their direction. The film is funny, often hilarious, but it also feels slower than it should, particularly with its loony-tunes premise. Perhaps it is Dorr’s excessive monologues — which Hanks, a consummate comic actor, delivers in a manner that is goofy but still admirably restrained — that bog down the proceedings; maybe it’s the fact that the story is very simple yet is stretched for 104 minutes when perhaps 90 would have been better. I like the movie, but with the top-notch acting, cinematography and dialogue it has, I should have loved it.

B- (1 hr., 44 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some violence.)