Tom Hanks and the Coen brothers take the title, the concept (sweet little old lady outwits criminals), the teeth, and the slightly sepulchral laugh from the 1955 English black comedy classic. They may miss the primary point (and joke) of the original, and they tone down their usual corkscrew dialogue and mordant humor, but they still manage to provide some wicked pleasures.
The Coens love characters who are sweet but not very bright, especially when they manage to foil characters who are crooked but not very bright. And Hanks likes to play against his type as the all-American guy we’d like living next door.
Hanks plays Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, PhD., a man who dresses like Colonel Sanders and talks like Senator Claghorn. The curlicues of the professor’s baroque rhetorical flourishes are as tangled as a kudzu vine.
Dorr rents a bedroom in the home of Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall) and tells her that he and his friends want to use her root cellar to practice their music. His real plan is to drill a tunnel from her house to the counting room of a nearby riverboat casino so that they can rob it. Through an ad, he puts together a less than crackerjack team, including experts in ordnance Garth Pancake (J.K. Simmons) and The General (Tzi Ma), Lump (Ryan Hurst), a big guy for the heavy lifting, and McSam (Marlon Wayans) their “inside man,” a janitor at the casino.
Mrs. Munson is a fine, upstanding, church-going woman who wears a hat and gloves and talks to the portrait of her late husband that hangs over the fireplace and proudly sends $5 a month to Bob Jones University. She may not understand the details of what is going on around her, but she knows right from wrong (no smoking, bad language, or stealing, even a penny). She is as quick to insist on good behavior as she is to offer her cinnamon cookies. The fun is in seeing a sweet little “Land o’ Goshen”-ing lady innocently foiling the plans of the would-be criminal masterminds.
The movie is set in an idyllic Mississippi Bible belt town somewhere between Mayberry and a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover and some time gently nestled between the Depression and hip-hop. The humor comes from a colorful assortment of injuries, ailments, and casualties, along with some choice dialogue. If the Coens and Hanks are a little too far outside the boundaries of their best work, their second-and third-best is also watchable, at least for those who find a professor with bad teeth and a big vocabulary, a dog with a gas mask, a cat with a severed finger, and a garbage scow with a dead body funny.
Parents should know that the main characters are despicable criminals who lie, steal, and kill, all played for comedy. The humor is very macabre and may offend some viewers. Characters drink, smoke, and use extremely strong language, including sexual references and the n-word.
Families who see this movie should talk about whether it is true that no one gets hurt when insurance pays for the stolen goods.
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the original The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob. They might also enjoy other comic heist films like Big Deal on Madonna Street and The Hot Rock.