Miranda Sawyer - Bit of a steal

Film - The Coen brothers' remake of an Ealing classic lacks the genius of the original. By Miranda S

This will raise your hackles: them darn Yanks getting their mucky mitts on a classic Ealing comedy. One of my absolute all-time favourites, in fact: The Ladykillers is so big in our house that its lines have become stock phrases - Mrs "Lopsided" Wilberforce's bemused "I've got all the lolly!" proving particularly useful when settling bills.

With Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom all at peak performance, the 1955 original is magnificent. A gang pulls the perfect heist, only to be foiled by the sweet old lady who rents them a room thinking they're a string quintet. Effortlessly modern - funny and scary - with taut, tick-tock script and a claustrophobic atmosphere that flips from farce to fright in the rattle of a teacup, The Ladykillers is a genuine tour de force and earned the writer, William Rose, an Oscar nomination. It looks so great, too: Guinness looming at the door; Lom brandishing his violin case like a pistol; Danny "One-Round" Green clambering around the roof, a human King Kong atop a tumbledown London cottage. Katie Johnson as Mrs Wilberforce is quite brilliantly dotty, strewing chaos in her wake as she potters along the road to righteousness. Not a character is weak, not a word wasted. Even the parrots are marvellous.

So we are naturally prejudiced against a remake, perhaps more so when the directors are the high priests of the American alternative scene, Joel and Ethan Coen - movie magpies who have double-handedly reinvented American noir. Hands off our black humour! Homage yer own! But the clever Coen brothers can do what they want; they are outsiders who have moved in - from 1984's silly, splashy Blood Simple to last year's vehicle for George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Intolerable Cruelty - and their Hollywood stock is currently skyscraper high. You wonder for how long, though. With warm yet weird films such as Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), their reputation is justified; but Intolerable Cruelty was ropy, to say the least, and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) far too studied to bother itself with a story.

To give them credit, though, the Coen brothers always bring out the exaggerated best in their actors - and in The Lady- killers, Tom Hanks turns in his finest comic performance for several years. He is Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, PhD, who comes knocking on the door of the Bible-loving landlady played by Irma P Hall. "Fudd?" says she, suspiciously. "Like Elmer?" "No, no," smoothes Hanks, "P. H. D." In full deep southern gentleman regalia - complete with small cape - Hanks sniggers, sniffs and pontificates to brilliant effect. Like Guinness in the original, his mouth seems too full of bad teeth, and while Hanks never achieves Guinness's threat, he does capture his manic, over-educated bluster. (Guinness himself was imitating Alastair Sim, so this is an echo of an echo of a performance.)

Setting the new Ladykillers in America's south is a fine premise, which gives Irma, a churchgoer, the driving moral conviction of the original Mrs Wilberforce. Moving much of the action outside Irma's house, however, is less successful, losing the first film's creepy confinedness, the sense of everything and everyone toppling down on one another. Plus, the Coens spend most of their movie on the heist - the gathering of personnel, the planning and build-up to the robbery of a casino - leaving very little time for the lady-killing, which is surely the point. Irma is in no way implicated, either, so murdering her seems less inevitable, more farcical.

Though we know the Coen brothers can do scary (Miller's Crossing, Fargo), this time they plump for hokey charm, so that nothing about this film is quick or frightening enough. It's all too easy-going. The script, though funny, is blunt and broad - one of the gang has irritable bowel syndrome: ho! - with none of the terrifying one-thing-follows-another inevitability of the original. And, unforgivably, you are just not scared of Hanks's berkish gang. They are buffoons to a man, save one - the silent General, who has a cute way with a cigarette and can halt an armed stick-up by shoving his fingers up the robber's nose. Put any of this lot against mad Guinness or, especially, stiletto-wielding Lom, and they wouldn't stand a chance.

In the end, you find yourself spotting direct lifts from the original - the music played when the gang is "practising", the gun-stutter before the final demise of the gang's lunk-head - just to keep yourself amused. This isn't a bad film, by any means. Hanks is truly funny, and there are some neat moments, notably when the professor is forced to take his tea under his bed to avoid the police. But fans of the original can't help but be disappointed, and those of the Coen brothers will file this under "could do better".

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