10 July 2004 | bob the moo
Quite enjoyable but lacking few really good touches and it is certainly far from being a match for the Coen's best work or the original
Marva Munson is a religious woman in the Deep South who has a room to rent and a large character. She takes in the rather eccentric and rather charming gentleman Professor G.H. Dorr, who asks if he may use her basement for his musical ensemble to practice. However Dorr's real plan is to tunnel out of the basement and into the underground money store of a nearby casino.
However, the plan doesn't go exactly to plan and the one thing Dorr hasn't accounted for is a little old lady discovering what's really going on.
Having spent last Saturday afternoon in the company of the original (very good if not a classic) I decided to spend part of this Saturday in a cinema with the remake. The plot is pretty much the same as the original, with only the characters and the specifics of the job changing; in terms of concept, some plot details and even some scene set ups it hasn't changed that much and I quite enjoyed seeing elements I recognised. The film is quite fun on its own terms but it is not great and it becomes rather frustrating to not only compare it to the original but to also have in mind that this is a film from the Coen brothers. I say this because, aside from Dorr himself, the film lacked their usual assured wit and eye for character.
Dorr is a fine character in the mould of the original but the rest of the characters are really lacking. How many Coen films have the characters been more important than anything else? Here we have characters with the usual 'things' about them, but here these 'things' are really lazy and obvious like someone was trying to ape the Coens. So MacSam becomes a lazy 'mo-fo' talking black character, The General is a quiet, calm Oriental and Pancake's twist is that he has IBS practically giving us fart jokes, in a Coen brothers movie!
These secondary characters deliver very little whereas usually the Coens provide much to love in their support. The change to the character of the little old lady is a big mistake too the whole idea is that the lady is not a match for the crooks but overcomes them by accident, here it is apparent from the start that Munson is more than a match for any of them! The cast are pretty mixed and pretty much do what they can with what they are given. For that reason Hanks is great and adds cream to the top of Guinness' performance in the original he is funny and well worth watching but the film dips when he is offscreen. Hall is very good and it is not her fault that her character is misjudged; she works her facial expressions very well and I enjoyed her even if I longed for a role like the original had. Simmons tries hard but the IBS thing spoils what little he had, Hurst is just a lump (literally) and is annoying rather than funny, Ma is pretty funny because of how he acts but even the whole flip-cigarette-inside-mouth thing is an old joke. And then we come to Wayans. Wayans is not the sort of person I ever thought I'd see in a Coen brothers movie and he just does his usual 'mo-fo' ethnic stereotype thing here, he is annoying and his character just smacks of a complete lack of imagination.
The soundtrack is full of good gospel stuff and it makes it feel a lot more lively than the original and this energy does help cover some of its failings but not that well. Overall it is fun and it is worth a look, but if you have seen the original or like the Coens then you will struggle to see past its failings at times. The characters are not as well written as they could have been and it is not as funny as it needed to be (the original wasn't laugh out loud either, but then it had other strengths that this doesn't). It has just about enough going for it to be worth watching once but it is both a sub-par Coen brother's film and a sub-par version of a better film.