Oh, how very clearly I remember looking forward to The Ladykillers, back in the first few months of 2004! After being extremely disappointed in Intolerable Cruelty the previous fall, it felt like this was going to see the Coen brothers right the ship: it didn't exude the same unengaged aura of "we had a gap in our schedule", and it was bringing back T Bone Burnett to curate a soundtrack of gospel music, which couldn't help but evoke the ghost of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was by no means my favorite Coen film, but I'd take it, after the steady slide downward that had followed it. Plus, the trailers showcased Tom "America's Dad" Hanks, giving an uncharacteristically unhinged-looking performance; the trailer's line "We must all have waffles forthwith", in his cartoonishly eccentric delivery, was funnier than literally anything in Intolerable Cruelty.

Well, the waffle line was good, at any rate. And Hanks was holding very little back. But boy, 28 March 2004 turned out to be a real fucking bummer. This is it: the nadir of the Coen brothers' directorial career, the film that even the people who'll get into a rumble to protect the honor of Intolerable Cruelty typically won't try to defend too loudly. The really depressing thing about it is that, unlike the earlier film, this doesn't feel like the Coens are checked-out by make-work project that's a bit too much of a studio production for their personalities. They feel invested in this one. It even goes back the traditional Coen-style opening credits (the cast list followed by the title, with no crew heads), and then at the start of the end credits, it's the first time that both Joel & Ethan Coen were credited as co-directors and producers, rather than splitting those credits between them. The screenplay has been fussed over, packed full of callbacks and motifs in the dialogue, and they've put real effort into making sure that all six main characters have noticeably different dialects and speaking patterns. Effort has been put into making sure the visuals create a specific mood, both in creating a particular comic tone, and in building up a very particular sense of place. It is the directors' last collaboration with production designer Dennis Gassner, with whom they'd worked, on and off, since Miller's Crossing, 14 years prior; he does a terrific job of creating very distinctive sets that combine domestic intimacy, atmospheric crime thrills, and a mythic vision of the American South. Costume designer Mary Zophres gives each character a distinctive uniform that evokes their personality while also helping to define the conflicts between them.

And all of this in service to a film that's just viciously unfunny. It's frankly inexplicable. Nothing elsewhere in the Coen filmography, including their work-for-hire screenplays (which is how this film started out: they wrote it for their friend and former cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who retained a producer credit), suggests the kind of jokes that show up over and over throughout this dire project. It is, for one thing, a strong counter-argument to the complaint that all of their films are full of white people, because if this is how they tackle the job of writing AAVE dialogue, it would be far, far better for them to not bother - where something like Fargo has the ineffable perfection of a lifetime of close observation in its caricature of upper Midwestern speech patterns, and even something thoroughly artificial like The Hudsucker Proxy or O Brother capture something loving and evocative in reviving and exaggerating pop culture stylisation, The Ladykillers begins and ends with "haha, Black people do be talkin like dat". It is also focused on poop jokes to a degree that simply cannot be squared with the rest of the Coens' writing career, nor with the entire ecosystem of film comedy in which they have always operated: one character, completely wasting J.K. Simmons in his first (and thank God, not his last) appearance in a Coen film, is defined almost solely as "blowhard parody of a know-it-all" until that shifts and he is defined almost solely as "man with irritable bowel syndrome", and while I can just barely stretch my imagination to include a smart and witty running gag about I.B.S., it is emphatically not the one we get here. Other forms of humor are less actively atrocious, but still not good: we have a dumb jock who talks mush, and we have a tough old grandma type, who seems confused and helpless until you get to the find out what a loud hellcat she is.

These elements are all swirled together in a plot that remakes the essence of a 1955 Ealing Studios comedy of the same title: a group of criminals, under the leadership of charismatic buffoon Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, Ph.D. (Hanks), have concocted a caper to rob a riverboat casino in small town Mississippi, and this involves tunneling from the basement of the house owned by dotty old widow Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall), a sharp-tongued old lady who keeps a good Christian house. The bulk of the film involves the grungy criminals - inside man Gawain MacSam (Marlon Wayans), explosives expert Garth Pancake (Simmons), a Vietnamese tunneling expert who is never explicitly said to be former Viet Cong, known just as the General (Tzi Ma), and idiot college football player "Lump" Hudson (Ryan Hurst) to serve as the muscle - trying desperately to keep buffaloing Mrs. Munson, as she remains wary of their trashy "hippity-hop" ways, while allowing herself to be charmed by the superficial, oily ways of Dorr himself. The title kicks in rather late in the film - later, if I recall correctly, than in the Ealing original - when she figures out what they're up to, and they realise the only way out is to kill the helpless, kind old woman; this turns out to be far easier said than done. Because even in Coen country, we're not actually here to watch a bunch of cartoon idiots murder an old woman.

As for what we are here for, I don't know, except to say that we don't get it. The film has a beastly time making its tone work: it's both meaner and sillier than the original British film, which already had such a peerless dark comic attitude that there was really nothing for the Coens to work for to fit it into their worldview. So there's no "turn", no point where it gets a kind of personalising stamp; it just marches through the scenario in a weirdly straightforward way - and a distressingly fast-paced, perfunctory way, as it arrives in the shapeless final act. What it does manage to do is to present the one time that the old criticism that the Coens despise their characters and lord over them smugly is correct: Mrs. Munson is the one generally kind and good character in any Coen film that the film openly and eagerly shits on, for the twin crimes of being Baptist, and being an old person who doesn't listen to rap music. So that's the meanness.

The silliness is mostly because the criminals are the broadest types imaginable, and the actors are rolling with it. The end point of this is a lot of braying, obvious jokes, especially between Simmons and Wayons (the two obvious "worst in show" picks; Simmons, at least, has the worse-written part). Some of it kind of works: the General is redeemed by being so wildly different than everything else in the film, a taciturn presence who isn't trying constantly to win "Loudest and Most Obnoxious; Ma helps considerably by being just about the only member of the cast to demonstrate excellent comic timing that isn't forced onto his performance by the editing. Hall fights tooth and nail to give her role some level of warmth and appealing personality, and while I'd say she's making questionable choices - a huge part of the reason the 1955 film works is that the old lady is simple and sweet, and making her loud and assertive changes the balance between her and the criminals that the scenario has an extremely hard time surviving - the script has trapped her in such an awkward, humiliating role that the fact she's able to emerge with some level of good cheer, and able to make us root for Mrs. Munson, is a miraculous achievement.

But now as in 2004, the only person here who comes at all close to making this work is Hanks. He's playing his role as an unhinged cartoon lunatic, and it's at least imaginable that this would work better if Dorr wasn't so transparently repulsive; but it's also imaginable that  it would never work at all, and at least Hanks's toothy, inspid parody of Southern gentility and elocution is authentically freaky, compared to the strained, effortful wackiness of the other bad guys. He makes sweet love to the multi-tiered lines the Coens have provided him with, taking strolls through the dialogue and pausing to enjoy the most florid turns of phrase; this creates a rhythm far more unexpected and enjoyable than the pow-pow-pow of the rest of the movie. He has perfected a simply repugnant way of laughing in the middle of his lines as though he's trying to maneuver a hair off of his tongue while having an asthma attack; he seems to be the only person in the cast other than Hall who has put real thought into how he walks, and what that tells us.

It's a superbly gross villain turn, by far the strangest thing Hanks has ever done, and in transforming The Ladykillers into a kind of burlesque on Faulkner, provides the only real model for a version of this film that's actually, like, watchable. Meanwhile, everything around him is a grating wreck - a well-crafted wreck (outside of some terrible CGI work that I think is meant to be stylised, but it's a style seen nowhere else in the movie), with excellent song choices, and the usual top-notch work from people like Zophres and Gassner and Roger Deakins (who counter-intuitively favors greys and a slight amount of diffusion in the lighting, giving this a more ethereal air than one might expect) and Skip Lievsay But it turns out that for a comedy, being funny is the most important thing, and he Ladykillers is acutely far from being funny. It is, in many ways, actively anti-funny. And not all the elegant craftsmanship and formal precision that the Coens throw at it can make it funnier. The film is the biggest hole in the leaking boat that their career had become over the course of the 2000s, and I distinctly remember at the time, wondering if it was time to abandon my fandom of the men who had been, until quite recently, my favorite American filmmakers.

Fortunately, they patched things up.