O Brother, Where Art Thou Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2001

O Brother, Where Art Thou? artwork

Love them or loathe them, you certainly have to give credit to Joel and Ethan Coen for having the sheer audacity when it comes to constructing the quirky crime-dramas that have defined their filmmaking careers since 1984. Taking cues from their favorite film noir classics, the typical Coen brothers film is an exploration of the human condition-- primarily the stupid things that human beings do and get themselves into. Mind you, the Coens don't always hit their mark, as "The Hudsucker Proxy" and "The Big Lebowski" so aptly illustrate. However, when they do hit their stride, the Coens have been known to put together some truly memorable films, chock full of great lines, black humor, and silly-but-likable characters-- their debut "Blood Simple", 1987's "Raising Arizona", and 1996's "Fargo" come to mind. With "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", a musical comedy 'loosely' based on Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey", the Coen brothers are at it again. And though it falls somewhere in-between the two extremes of their repertoire, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is a toe-tapping, entertaining, and somewhat memorable musical that only the Coens could have conjured up.

Who elected you leader of this outfit?
Well Pete, I figured it should be the one with the capacity for abstract thought.
John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, and George Clooney

If you are an aficionado of the Coen brothers, you know the importance of location in their films to set the flavor and tone of the picture (such as Brainerd, Minnesota for "Fargo", doncha know?). In this latest film, the setting is Mississippi in the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, a land where it seems only natural for Southern rural music, whether it be bluegrass, folk, or gospel, to flow freely from every field, stream, and sunset. It is here that we meet our three would-be heroes, who have just escaped from a prison work detail: Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney of "The Perfect Storm"), who is dumb but articulate, and his two co-escapees, Pete (Coen regular John Turturro, seen recently in "Cradle Will Rock") and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson of "The Thin Red Line"), who are just plain dumb.

He ain't our daddy.
I am the only daddy that you got... I am the damn pater familius!
Turturro, Nelson, and Clooney

Together, they are on their way to reclaim $1.2 million that Ulysses has stashed away from a bank robbery. Unfortunately, because they are Coen-type protagonists, they haven't exactly thought everything through, which leads to all sorts of comical complications along the way. Given that the plot is based on "The Odyssey" (actually, in an interview, the Coens admitted that they didn't actually read it), this road movie features run-ins with a one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman of "Coyote Ugly"), three spellbinding 'sirens' who love and liquor up our heroes while gently singing "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby", a blind soothsayer, as well as Ulysses' estranged wife Penny (Holly Hunter of "Time Code"), short for Penelope, who is about to remarry.

Oh George, not the livestock...
Clooney and Holly Hunter

However, to inject some Southern flavor (and quirkiness) into the proceedings, the Coens throw in a couple of grandstanding politicians (Charles Durning of "State and Main" and Wayne Duvall of "Hard Rain"), a man who sold his soul to the Devil so he could play the guitar (Chris Thomas King), a notorious bank robber named 'Babyface' Nelson (Michael Badalucco of TV's "The Practice"), a relentless sheriff (Daniel von Bargen of "Shaft") out to bring Ulysses and his cohorts to justice, as well as the KKK.

Them sirens loved'im up an' turned him into a h-h-horny toad!

With the title, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", the Coens pay homage to director Preston Sturges' film "Sullivan's Travels". Like the 1941 film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is a mixed bag of genres and forms (including slapstick, melodrama, romance, and musical) that is told with the use of cleverly-constructed dialogue and wit. Unfortunately, given that it is sort-of based on "The Odyssey", there's a heavy episodic feel to the film, as the meandering plot takes Ulysses and crew across the Mississippi, and it doesn't always hold together. Furthermore, it seems as though the Coens are having a little too much fun coming up with crazy stuff, at the audience's expense. But given how many strange and absurd situations that they have thrown in, you can be assured that if a particular sequence isn't working, it won't be long before one that does work comes along-- imagine a movie by the Farrelly brothers ("There's Something About Mary"), only more literate and sophisticated. Some of the films more memorable sequences include Ulysses and the boys doing a terrible job of infiltrating a KKK rally, their goofy appearance at a political fundraiser as the Soggy Bottom Boys band (probably the best musical number in the whole film), a fight sequence in a Woolworths, and the supernatural supposition that goes on when one of the trio disappears mysteriously.

You ever been with a woman?
I got to get back the family farm before I start thinking about that.
John Goodman

Another reason why "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" will not be remembered as one of the Coen's lesser efforts is that the three leads are so damn likable. Clooney exudes charm and charisma as the silvery-tongued Ulysses-- he may be as dim-witted as his two fellow escapees, but his proclivity for employing overly-elaborate phraseology makes him an all too evident anachronism to the simple-minded folk he comes across on his pilgrimage (!). Though he would like to take credit for singing "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" (the tune you'll be humming on the way home), he is actually voice-doubled by Dan Tyminski, who sounds pretty close to Clooney's actual singing voice. Turturro and Nelson, despite their thinly sketched characters, riff off Clooney very well, and they are fun to watch as they stumble in and out of situations that they can barely comprehend. In addition, these three leads are supported by a terrific ensemble, and of particular note is Goodman (who has always appeared in Coen films as evil characters), who does a memorable and glib turn as the resident Cyclops, while Hunter acquits herself nicely as Ulysses' estranged wife.

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" doesn't rank with the best of the Coen brothers, but thankfully, it ranks much higher than their worst, particularly their last effort, the unintelligible "The Big Lebowski". With great music, three charismatic leads, and some memorable moments, marred only by an overly-long and meandering plot, it is good to see that the Coen brothers still know how to channel their quirkiness into a joke that the audience will also get. To quote one Ulysses Everett McGill, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" may be 'dumber than a bag of hammers', but if you're looking for two hours of absurd fun, then this film is 'bona fide'.

Images courtesy of Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

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