O Brother, Where Art Thou?

          In Preston Sturges' great Sullivan's Travels (1942), the movie
  director John L. Sullivan wants to make his magnum opus, a document
  that holds a mirror up to life and displays not only dignity but "a true
  canvas of the suffering of humanity." He plans to call the film         
O Brother, Where Art Thou? Now in a tribute to Sturges, the Coen
  brothers -- Ethan and Joel -- have made a film that partially pays
  homage to Sturges, other films of the 1930s, but with a decidedly
  modern twist.  Despite its highfalutin' pedigree (the screenplay is
  an adaptation of Homer's epic Odyssey), this motion picture comes
  off as a modest entry into the filmmaking siblings' oeuvre. While one
  might argue that the Coen brothers depict the dignity of their
  leading characters,
O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn't exactly
  realize the lofty dreams of Sturges' fictitious filmmaker. It more or
  less is a pastiche, an entertainment to be enjoyed for its own modest

          The Coens, however, should be cited for doing their homework
  and managing to find early 20th-century equivalents for the mythic
  story. Odysseus and his men are represented by three escapees
  from a 1930s chain gang making their way in pursuit of buried
  treasure: the dandy Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), the
  dimwitted Pete (John Turturro) and the even denser Delmar
  (Tim Blake Nelson). Once the trio escapes, they run into a blind
  Black man who helps them (the seer), attempt to find respite
  with Pete's relatives (representative of the lotus eaters), meet a
  trio of luscious women (the Sirens), cross paths with a one-eyed
  bible salesman (standing in for the Cyclops), are led astray by
  bank robber George Nelson (analogous to the sojourn on AEolus),
  stumble upon a Ku Klux Klan rally (the Laestrygonians), and fac
  a contemporary Scylla and Charybdis when they are recognized
  as escapees at a political gathering with no visible means of escape.

          As in
Raising Arizona, the Coen brothers establish a comic
  tone that borders perilously close to a cartoon. If it weren't for the
  mostly fine (albeit stylized) performances, the film easily could have
  veered into the realm of bad comedy. It also helps that the siblings
  have intermingled 1930s American mythology with the story (i.e.,
  the blues musician who reportedly sold his sold to the devil at a
  crossroads, Baby Face Nelson, etc.) and bolstered the material
  by employing a terrific musical score that interpolates original
  recordings and judicious remakes of bluegrass, country and blues.

          In the leading role of the smooth-talking Everett, George
  Clooney has been made up to resemble Clark Gable complete with
   pomaded hair and clipped mustache. Although the character
  may not be any smarter than his buddies, he has been blessed
  with the ability to project intelligence and Clooney captures that
  beautifully. His performance is nicely modulated and very amusing,
  recalling the screwball work of William Powell and Cary Grant. Finally
  allowed to cut loose on screen for the first time, Clooney rises to
  the challenge and fills the screen with his own brand of movie-star

          John Turturro tends to overplay the stupidity of his character
  which robs the role of some of comic potential, although he gets
  some mileage out of his shtick in the film's early sequences. Far
  better is actor-director Tim Blake Nelson who is perfectly cast as
  the dull-witted Delmar. Perhaps because he is not a familiar face,
  Nelson is completely believable as the bumbling rube.

          Of the large supporting cast, Charles Durning as a corrupt
  politician, John Goodman as the bible salesman and Michael
  Badalucco as bank robber George Nelson (don't call him 'Baby Face')
  stand out, while Holly Hunter is miscast as Penny, a harried mother
  of seven who proves less constant than her literary counterpart.

          Roger Deakins does his usual best as cinematographer, capturing
  the Southern landscapes with his camera and investing the film with
  its mythic patina. Director Joel Coen pushes the envelope as much
  as possible, none more so than by staging the Klan rally as a
  Busby Berkeley musical number. It is a moment that is a bit
  uncomfortable to watch, which may have been the filmmaker's
  intent. Nevertheless, it does border on questionable taste.
  Ultimately that scene sums up what is both right and wrong with
O Brother, Where Art Thou? In their other films, the Coen brothers
  have tread a fine line between a condescending attitude (that's what
Fargo for me) and a deep affection for their characters. In
  this film, that line is blurred and it leaves the audience confused
  as to where their sympathies should lie. Despite the valiant effort
  by Clooney,
O Brother, Where Art Thou? ranks as one of the
  lesser efforts by the brothers Coen.

Rating:                C+
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.