English channeling

"" The Ladykillers
Starting tomorrow at area theaters
Three reels out of four

Welcome to British Comedy 101. Today we will be studying the classic dark comedy The Ladykillers.

The original starred the great Alec Guinness as an eccentric academic who leads a band of motley robbers from his room at a boarding house.

But today, our professors — the writing-directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen — will be revising the classic. They will be assisted by Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks in the Guinness role and character actor par excellence Irma P. Hall, who will play the kindly, deceptively helpless old lady. Supporting parts will be played by Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons and other fine thespians. Please take notes. You will be tested after the movie.

Hanks plays professor G.H. Dorr. One day he shows up at the home of churchgoing widow Marva Munson (Hall) looking for a room. The professor soon informs his new landlady that he and his band of merry men will be practicing Renaissance music in her basement. Little does she know they are practicing to rob a riverboat casino of nearly $2 million by tunneling from her basement to where the money is kept.

People often criticize reviewers for being wishy-washy. If you like the movie, why not just say so?

Yet The Ladykillers is a good case for ambivalence. As much as one is tempted to give it a rave review, the film’s flaws cannot be ignored. As funny as the movie is, it is not funny enough. And The Ladykillers never quite jells as a caper movie. It feels too much as if the Coen brothers are giving a master class in British comedy.

The film’s funniest moments come when Wayans and Hall share the screen. Purists might accuse the Coen brothers of selling out, of going for the lowest common denominator, but they’d be missing the point. The fact is that Wayans and Hall play off each other like seasoned vaudevillians, and whoever decided to put their antics in the ads is a smart person. It’s the best stuff in the movie.

The rest of the cast is wonderful. Hanks’ performance is somewhat influenced by Guinness’ original, but with nods to both Foghorn Leghorn and Charles Laughton’s character in Advise and Consent, a 1962 film about the controversial confirmation hearings for a Secretary of State candidate. But as good as Hanks is, Hall steals the movie from right under his feet whenever she graces the screen. Her Marva is a comic diamond of a performance. Wayans is surprisingly good. Also entertaining are Simmons and George Wallace in supporting roles.

If you don’t mind uneven but occasionally hilarious comedies, you could do worse than The Ladykillers. But if you’re looking for a master class in British comedy, rent the original.

Recommended rental

Hoop Dreams
Now available (on VHS only)

This year is the 10th anniversary of the landmark sports documentary Hoop Dreams and it happens to be that time of year — March Madness. So what are you waiting for? While waiting for the next game, this is your fix. Hoop Dreams follows two Chicago high-school basketball phenoms as they pursue their dream of playing college, and hopefully pro, basketball. At two hours and 50 minutes, it is hardly an easy viewing, but its honesty is refreshing. After watching this movie, you wonder who wants this dream more — the parents or the kids.