By Owen Gleiberman
March 25, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
The Ladykillers: Melinda Sue Gordon

Before he was anointed as the Jimmy Stewart of the New America, Tom Hanks used to play jerks. Put-down artists. A–holes. He has always had a streak of the caustic, and he draws on that merry misanthropy to play the Southern gothic criminal mastermind of The Ladykillers, Joel and Ethan Coen’s enjoyably screwy, mad-as-a-hatter remake of the 1955 Alec Guinness comedy. As Goldthwait Higginson Dorr, a charlatan professor with curlicued highbrow airs, Hanks wears a devil’s goatee, a wedge of hair that slopes onto his forehead like the corner of a doormat, and a toothy smile of pure disdain. A lot of good actors have gone to work for the Coens and ended up looking like puppets, but Hanks is too clever for that. He knows that he’s playing a concoction rather than a human being (the original featured Guinness in fake fangs), and he lends the movie the full, devious force of his bristly spirit.

Dorr, who speaks in floridly complete and baroque sentences, wraps the plummiest of snob-Dixie accents around lines like ”The hearse is simply a vehicle commodious enough to accommodate all the members of the ensemble.” The Coens tried a similar gambit in ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” but George Clooney’s ten-dollar wordplay was arbitrary and senseless — hence, obnoxious. In ”The Ladykillers,” Dorr’s ornate dialogue isn’t just his criminal cover. He sublimates his rage into all that creamy verbosity, and Hanks, who sounds like he went to sleep with tapes of William F. Buckley Jr. murmuring in his ears, finds a sociopath’s restraint in the fussy thickets of words.

In Mississippi, Dorr rents a room from the pious, creaky-limbed Mrs. Munson (Irma P. Hall), telling her that he plans to use her root cellar to rehearse a Renaissance quintet. Actually, the ”musicians” are a gang of thieves who plan to tunnel from the cellar into a casino vault, and the prime gag of ”The Ladykillers” is that each one of them seems to have dropped in from a different movie. There’s Gawain (Marlon Wayans), the casino janitor with a hair-trigger temper and hip-hop vocabulary; Pancake (J.K. Simmons), the explosives expert with irritable bowel syndrome; Lump (Ryan Hurst), a brainless muscleman; and the General (Tzi Ma), a wordless chain-smoker with a Hitler mustache. The Coens work in their usual visually popping clockwork mode, and though the laughs don’t always hit, the trip-wire plot meshes shrewdly with the Coen style. Mrs. Munson, in her church-lady myopia, proves a formidable adversary, and that renders the film’s gorgeous gospel soundtrack anything but gratuitous: It mocks the pretensions of sinners who should have known better.