O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Directed By Joel and Ethan Coen
Reviewed by Jeremy Russell
Thursday, February 1 2001, 12:03 PM
When it becomes available on video they'll certainly file O Brother, Where Art Thou? under 'comedy,' but few movies are as truly offbeat and difficult to categorize as this anti-racist interpretation of Homer's Odyssey. You might think a zany, low-rent comedy set in depression-era Mississippi would be a bit out of step with the bloated special effects of our digital age or that a 30s era country blues/bluegrass political musical could not find purchase in a time of techno-industrial rap metal, but the theater where I saw O Brother was packed to capacity. And I was at the late show because all of the earlier ones had sold out. O Brother may not have cracked the box office top ten on opening weekend, but I warrant mine wasn't the only theater overflowing. Why is this weirdly titled, anachronistic adaptation of an epic poem proving successful? Well, obviously it's the Coen Brothers. If I hadn't known that going in, I would have learned it standing in line. The crowd was absolutely buzzing with references, in-jokes and I-can't-believe-you-haven't-seen's. The last time I was in a queue with such a rapid pulse was for the Star Wars revival.
Clearly the Coens, who are far from mainstream directors and don't even work in conventional genres, have tapped into something essential in their audiences. O Brother exemplifies, even allegorizes, the essential dynamic which has made the Coen Brothers the kings of cult film.
The story involves a Ulysses (George Clooney) that is more anti-hero than epic hero and his bumbling cohorts, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson). These three stooges have just escaped a chain gang and are on their way to dig up a treasure that an old black blind Tiresius in a track car tells them they'll never find. They will, he informs them, see many other wondrous sights, and indeed they do. However, it takes them a long time to realize the codger predicted true and, between adventures, they spend most of the movie fantasizing about ways they're going to spend the 1.2 million in loot.
On the way, they'll meet a Robert Johnson look-alike, who has just sold his soul for the gift of guitar at a lonely crossroads as in the old legend; George "Babyface" Nelson, who hates cows more than coppers; a dangerous one-eyed con man named Big Dan Teague; and the Devil himself. They'll witness a song and dance number featuring a KKK lynch mob and a gigantic flood that washes in like a deus ex -machina. There are barn burnings, bank robberies and extreme cow tippings. Each character must face their own dangers. Delmar, who just wants to buy the old farm back, struggles with his recent conversion to Christianity. Pete faces a literal dark night of the soul and seems transformed into a horney toad until John Goodman, as the perfectly chilling Cyclops/con-artist/Klan-man Big Dan, takes a disliking to him. All while fast-talking, but basically okay, leader Ulysses Everett McGill obsesses over his Dapper Dan pomade.
The Coens always seem to bring out something in their troupe which you never saw before and George Clooney's gonzo performance in O Brother is a case in point. In part it's the rapid-fire dialogue which does it -- witness Ulysses's wildfire debate with three of his daughters at the campaign rally. However, the excellence of plot, clarity of character and perfection of pacing of the film serve to assist, all comfortably couched in a panorama of beautiful scenery.
No review of O Brother would be complete without discussing the music. The Coens work from strong material, using a broad range of obscure classics to sublime effect. What is amazing about O Brother, however, is how seamlessly the music is incorporated. When the lead characters break out in song, it is because they are in a radio station making a recording crucial to the plot. Other characters sing at religious revival meetings and off the back of trucks driving from town to town for political campaigns. There is never that moment, as there is with most musicals, where you think, give me a break, why are they singing?
The artistry of O Brother exemplifies exactly what the Coen Brothers are so good at delivering. It appeals to people who want to be surprised, who want to be intelligently entertained, who want, like the main characters in O Brother, to have their escapism feature not only a release from the toil of the day, but also a release from the constraints of money grubbing. Perhaps this is why the Coens feature so many dream or dreamlike sequences, to represent the desire to -- like the Dude from The Big Lebowski or the bloodhound in O Brother's Mississippi flood -- simply float away.