The premise is basically the same as the 1955 film "The Ladykillers," which starred Alec Guinness in the role Tom Hanks fills in this version. Professor Goldthwait Higgingson Dorr Ph.D. (Hanks) assembles his gang of thieves by taking out an ad in the newspaper (I guess law enforcement types don't read the want ads). The Coen Bros introduce us to those who responded to the want ad through snippets of their lives before turning to crime. There's The General (Tzi Ma) who helps run a Mom and Pop store, which he defends like it houses the Crown Jewels. Pancake (J.K. Simmons) is a demolition expert who is first shown fitting a dog with a gas mask (kids, don't try this trick at home). Gawain (Marlon Wayans) works at the casino where the heist will go down. And Lump (Ryan Hurst) is a football player with all the skills of a tackling dummy. Hit a few too many times on the head, Lump is just that - a lump.
Needing a base of headquarters and a place to start the tunnel that will eventually lead to the local gambling casino's safe, Dorr rents a room from a nice little old widow, Marva Munson (Irma P Hall). Munson's a devout supporter of Bob Jones University, a fact she points out at every opportunity. Covering his plan to dig up her root cellar, Dorr claims he and his ragtag cohorts are a music group who spread the gospel through song. Surprisingly, the plan actually works. Not so surprisingly, things turn sour when Marva discovers what they've really been up to. Threatening to call the cops if they don't put the money back and go with her to church, the gang decides to knock her off - drawing straws to carry out the task. Since this is a bumbling gang of would-be thieves, there's no way killing one feisty elderly lady is going to be easy.
"The Ladykillers" benefits from the same type of humor that made "The Big Lebowski" and "O Brother" work so effectively. It also includes one of the most bizarre performances of Tom Hanks' long and illustrious career. He adopts this truly fascinating accent and speech pattern that's at times a little hard to understand, yet totally captivating. This is definitely a step outside the box from the relative safety of Hanks' last half dozen roles. And the exchanges between Irma P. Hall (another terrific performer in this ensemble cast) and Hanks are like watching a fencing match between two old pros. Marlon Wayans adds spark (as well as R rated language), J.K. Simmons steals scene after scene, Tzi Ma has a running sight gag and looks menacing even when simply standing there, and Ryan Hurst as Lump provides the film with heart. But truly, it's Hanks' film and he really goes for it. With a maniacal glint in his eye, Hanks makes Dorr a charismatic, devilish creature.
Sharply written and infused with an otherworldly sort of texture, "The Ladykillers" marks the return of the Coen Bros. we all know and love.
"The Ladykillers" is written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen and is rated R for language including sexual references.