O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Chain gang escapees Pete (John Turturro, left), Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Everett (George Clooney, right) make a hasty run for freedom and the promise of a buried treasure in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
(© 2000 Touchstone Pictures/Universal Studios. All rights reserved.)

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

To fully enjoy O Brother, Where Art Thou? it not only helps to have a passing familiarity with Homer’s The Odyssey, on which the movie is loosely based, but also the films of Preston Sturges (whose Sullivan’s Travels gives the movie its title) as well as any other movie that could even remotely be described as "southern" or "gothic." The Coen brothers, in their first movie since The Big Lebowski, borrow lightly from these many and varied sources to form a pastiche so derivative in nature that you will find yourself wondering just what exactly O Brother, Where Art Thou? is supposed to be. Too light-hearted to be taken seriously, too clever to be dismissed as pure parody, the movie eludes definition. Its story, about three escaped convicts looking for a lost treasure, winds its way across the sun-scorched Mississippi backwoods, and as if by design, manages to unearth every weirdo and lunatic you’d possibly expect from the makers of Fargo. Along the way, we hear a lot of good music, most of it country and folk. Whenever the movie threatens to break under its top-heavy eccentricities, the musical numbers, with their breezy realism, offer some much needed relief.

The most talkative of the escapees, and hence their leader, is a rogue named Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney). Among McGill’s more interesting idiosyncracies is his obsession with his hair: he sleeps wearing a hairnet and goes to great lengths to obtain Dapper Dan Pomade, a hair care product to which he has adamantly sworn allegiance. His companions are a tall nitwit named Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and a short nitwit, Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson). Their colorful odyssey through Depression-era Mississippi is filled with Southern incarnations of classical characters, from the Sirens (three nubile, country-singing laundresses) to the Cyclops (a corpulent con-artist with a patch over one eye). Ulysses is using the pretext of a lost treasure to find his way home to his errant wife (Holly Hunter), who has divorced him and is threatening to marry a man who "has prospects" and who is "bona-fide."

The movie’s humor, as in all Coen Brothers films, can go from sophisticated to puerile in an instant. In addition to cranking up the twang on the local-speak, O Brother takes jabs at fat people, midgets, and the elderly. It also takes a swipe at the Klan, which is portrayed as a ritual-obsessed fraternity. And the movie’s politicians, who are in the midst of an election for governor, come off as profoundly dim-witted and in-bred. One candidate (Charles Durning) is incessantly followed by his three sons, each of whom resembles his father at various stages of balding and corpulence, and who repeat his every inept utterance. With so many characters to mock and precious few to admire, O Brother naturally lacks a human dimension. Its freak-show inclination towards caricature is at times extremely funny, but it places a solid wall between us and the characters. We laugh at them so that we may not share their suffering.

As Ulysses, Clooney is competent as always, but his conventional good looks work against him, marking him as ho-hum average while the rest of the cast is free to fly off in different directions. Clooney strains to be weird; it’s not natural for him. One could easily imagine Steve Buscemi or Johnny Depp having more fun with the role. Turturro and Nelson, however, are both perfectly cast as his foolish allies who keep getting into trouble. Their comic chemistry works on a physical and verbal level. When they are surrounded by cops in a movie theater, they engage in an hilarious whispering match that manages to ask why movie whispering often sounds so loud. During their long, dust-filled journey, the three escapees record a song for a local radio station which, unbeknownst to them, becomes a hit. And in the spirit of deus ex machina, the song ultimately saves them from their pursuers.

The music in O Brother is arranged by T Bone Burnett using traditional tunes and it’s performed on screen by the actual musicians. At these moments, the movie becomes something altogether different. It hypnotizes us with its sudden simplicity, and for awhile, we are content to sit back and listen. In a movie crammed with cartoonish characters and deliberately fake settings, the music stands out as a bit of unforced reality. It calms the movie’s hyperactive spirit. O Brother, Where Art Thou? may, in the end, just be a bit of forgettable comic fluff, but its music will linger with you for days.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Touchstone (movies.go.com)
Movie Web site: O Brother, Where Art Thou?



Photos: (© Touchstone Pictures/Universal Studios. All rights reserved.)