Picks and Pans Review: The Ladykillers

updated 04/05/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst

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Tom Hanks, usually the least showy of thespians, acts up a comic storm here and takes obvious, almost lip-licking delight in doing so. To observe Hanks, as a con man masquerading as a learned professor, natter on in an exaggerated drawl about playing "ray-naaahy-saahnze" music on period instruments is to savor the appeal of this offbeat comedy that is in the quirky details rather than the big picture.

The Ladykillers, cowritten and co-directed by brothers Ethan and Joel Coen (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), is a remake of a classic 1955 British comedy starring Alec Guinness. The story, deftly transplanted from London to rural Mississippi, is in its broad outlines the same: The "professor" and an inept gang of thieves (Wayans, Simmons, Ma and Hurst) use an elderly widow's house as headquarters to plot and carry out a robbery. When the old gal (Hall, who manages to steal scenes even from Hanks) gets wise to the scheme, the gang bungles multiple attempts to kill her.

The Coens are coasting in low gear, satisfied to pull off a Rube Goldberg slapstick scene or impress with a unique camera angle (the point-of-view shots from within a football helmet are a hoot). They have naught invested in their characters. That said, even an appetizer from the Coens is still tastier than a full meal from most filmmakers. And Ladykillers' gospel soundtrack is as toe-tappingly irresistible as the roots music of O Brother's was. (R)

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