An eccentric, if not charming Southern professor and his crew pose as a classical ensemble in order to rob a casino, all under the nose of his unsuspecting but sharp old landlady.
The first remake from the Coen Brothers (it would later be followed by ‘True Grit’) is regarded as one of their weaker efforts, and it’s hard to say whether this is a genuine comment on the quality of this film, or fondness for the original Ealing comedy starring Peter Sellars and Alec Guinness. The original, from 1955, has a lot of British wit about it and was one of my favourite films growing up, so I was interested to see what the remake would be like. For the most part, I liked it, but it’s nowhere near as good as the original film (I shall try my best not to make constant comparisons throughout this review!) and it feels a little more stagey.
Most of that is down to Tom Hanks portrayal of the lead criminal. Hanks is a fantastic actor, but his performance feels a little off here – almost a little too ‘actorly’ and not natural enough. He has a lot of fun with his opaque dialogue, and some of his conversations have a nice quirk to them, but for the most part it feels that a little more simplicity would have benefited proceedings.
The premise of the film is a great one – ‘Professor’ Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr (Hanks) assembles a band of criminals to rob a riverboat casino, and he discovers the easiest way to do this is by tunneling through the cellar of a nearby house to the casino’s counting house, which is on dry land. He does this by lodging with an old widow, Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), under the pretense of practicing music of the renaissance with his ensemble. Munson is a well meaning religious woman with strong values, and at various times throughout the film, her naivety and her strong values are both a blessing and a curse for the gang of criminals.
The criminal ensemble is made up of Tzi Ma, J. K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans and Ryan Hurst, who all answered Dorr’s advert, and they make an interesting group of people, very different but with one common goal. The comedy comes throughout from the attempts of the gang to hide the truth from Mrs. Munson, whilst keeping up the pretense that they’re actually capable of playing their instruments. The plot unfolds in entertaining ways, and the finale mirrors the terrific conclusion to the 1955 original, albeit the journey isn’t as satisfying.
I mentioned earlier in my criticism of Tom Hanks performance that he’s too stagey, and given we spend more time with him than anyone else that this is to the detriment of the overall experience. The same can’t be said for the support, who are all pretty entertaining with the exception of Hurst (who is given nothing to do), with Irma P. Hall particularly excellent as Mrs. Munson.
The film itself is a good crime caper but it would be difficult to recommend over the original, and it feels too similar in many ways to really have warranted the remake. An enjoyable watch but I’d be surprised if I watched the film again. The next film in my retrospective is the Coen’s only ‘Best Picture’ winner at the Oscars to date, ‘No Country for Old Men‘, which I’m really looking forward to watching again.
Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Tzi Ma, J. K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans, Ryan Hurst, Diane Delano and Stephen Root