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Criminal Intent

The Coen brothers’ edge continues to dull in “The Ladykillers.”

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The film is a remake of an impeccable 1955 picture that starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. It was made by England’s famed Ealing studio, very much a “Coen brothers” of its day that also made darkly comic, idiosyncratic movies. While the original was set in London, the Coen’s version is set in a nameless small town of the South. We’re never told exactly when the action takes place, only that it is sometime in the hip-hop era (the church-going widow continuously rails against, of all rap lyrics, “I left my wallet in El Segundo”). Yet the feeling is not of a contemporary Southern town or city, but of a truly exotic land where people who sport thick gold chains and sideways caps inhabit a setting that could double for Mayberry, complete with a sleepy little sheriff’s office and its loafing hound dog. The Coens have an evident fascination with the South, an appeal to nostalgia “The Ladykillers” shares with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Tom Hanks heads up the gang of crooks as an era-challenged professor who for some unexplained reason dresses and talks like a plantation owner. An effusive man of letters, he uses words like forthwith and therefore, which confound his listeners, who mostly speak like people from “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Mark Twain surely would have grimaced at such caricatures of Southern people, mocked just as they were in “O Brother,” in which every person besides the dashing George Clooney was a backwards hick, incapable of moving or even thinking faster than molasses. In “The Ladykillers,” people besides the loquacious professor are blithely oblivious, haughtily ignorant, insipidly bigoted or simply crazy. The only other type of person is a goon so stupid he can’t even speak. Brace yourself for the witty dialogue.

The Coens are known to be consummate film buffs, so it is just like them to pick a gem like the “The Ladykillers” to remake. All the more baffling then that they gutted the script, replaced the dry British humor with fart jokes and wrote updated characters like the shallow African-American played by Marlon Wayans, who seems created solely as a vehicle for the N-word. Rather than boiled in the feverish mind of Barton Fink, this ensemble piece looks like it was created out of a mix-up of episodes from “The Parkers” and “The A-Team.”

Coen defenders will say their films are known for putting you in fantastic settings populated with eccentric characters. The good examples — even the few great ones such as “Miller’s Crossing,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “Raising Arizona” — always relied on style more than substance. But can you count a hodgepodge of overly broad personalities and cultural nonsense as a style? Can you count Tom Hanks dressed like Colonel Sanders? It’s an odd style. It’s just not a very original or interesting one.

The only worthwhile Coen signature in “The Ladykillers” is the rollicking soundtrack, a blend of Southern spirituals and old-fashioned gospel music. It’s likely the Coens do, in fact, love the hand-clapping good times of a gospel hymn. But simply offering it during pointless church scenes in a movie with a running gag about irritable bowel syndrome is suspiciously predictable. Considering the very similar (and very successful) “O Brother” soundtrack, it smacks of shameless self-plagiarism.

What the Coen brothers are really digging in “The Ladykillers” is a rickety mine of quaint nostalgia, propped up by reputation but yielding artistic fool’s gold. It might not be a crime, but after nearly two hours it should be. * S

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