The Coens haven't dug themselves too deeply into the hole of an uneven comedy.
The Coens can disappoint; Joel and Ethan are human like the rest of us. Treasures such as "Raising Arizona," which raises to new levels eccentric characters who dig themselves out of and into big holes stealing "Huggies" and "O Brother Where are Thou," with con men like George Clooney finding their way back home in Homeric allegory, are trademark Coen out-there cinema. "Fargo" may be subtler than the two just mentioned, but it has satire of the Midwest and crime as smart as anything else in the last decade.
The goons who dig themselves a hole in "The Ladykillers" are a gang that can't shoot straight headed by Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, III, Ph.D. (Tom Hanks). The crooks are digging a tunnel from a Southern mansion to the money stored by a floating casino deep in the heart of Dixie. It's Dorr's job to con the elderly owner of the mansion, black Baptist Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), into allowing him and his band of "Renaissance musicians" to occupy the cellar to "practice." She and her other matronly friends have their funny moments, fulfilling Shakespeare's hope that "these ladies'courtesy might well have made our sport a comedy."
Everyone is an over-the-top caricature, not the least of whom is the Colonel-Sanders looking professor Dorr with a silver tongue of lines from Edgar Allen Poe. The script is witty, and Hanks does a good job spitting the golden verses out to mesmerize Marva and her churchgoing friends. He is not as comfortable as Alec Guinness was in the similar role of the gang leader in the 1955 British version. The other cons are so stereotyped I won't catalogue them other than to say the most egregiously silly are either politically-incorrect black numbskull Marlon Wayans' Gawain MacSam or J.K. Simmons' Garth Pancake, who defines aggressive, fat-headed white trash.
The Bible-belt gospel music, overseen once again by the talented T Bone Burnett, does not quite have the range of the award-winning "O Brother," but it is lively and appropriate for the plot. The film smartly relies on the Rev. Thomas Dorsey, Blind Willie Johnson, the Swan Silvertones, and the Soul Strutters to provide memorable musical moments. Even classical music has a place. Sound tracks are a solid win for the Coens. Cinematographer Roger Deakins and designer Dennis Gassner recreate a perfect South, another strength of the Coens.
The satire of intellectuals, opportunists, slothful sheriffs, and crazed congregations has a bit of wit, as if the Coens decided to bring back Amos 'n Andy without updating and didn't care what we thought about it anyway. The humor at times seems forced, like Hanks' Southern accent. A portrait of the former head of this household changing with each scene to reflect the subject's disapproval doesn't work well the first time, much less several times.
The Coens will live to bring their caustic satire back to us in richer, more creative form. Right now they lead the contemporary satire scene in film and haven't dug themselves too deeply into the hole of an uneven comedy.