Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen based on The Odyssey by Homer.
Starring: George Clooney (Ulysses Everett McGill), John Turturro (Pete Hogwallop), Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar O'Donnell), John Goodman (Big Dan Teague), Holly Hunter (Penny), Chris Thomas King (Tommy Johnson), Charles Durning (Pappy O'Daniel), Del Pentecost (Junior O'Daniel), Michael Badalucco (George Nelson), Wayne Duvall (Homer Stokes), Ed Gale (The Little Man), Ray McKinnon (Vernon T. Waldrip), Stephen Root (Radio Station Man), Mia Tate (Siren), Musetta Vander (Siren), Christy Taylor (Siren).
Is it at all odd that I love O Brother, Where Art Thou given the fact that out of all the Coen brothers’ films, the one it most resembles is Raising Arizona – which is the one Coen brother film I really do not like? I don’t think so. While both films have a strange comic energy, that borderlines on cartoonish at times, I feel it’s more sustained this time out. The brothers also take their goofy story less seriously this time – it doesn’t really attempt the same level of serious emotion that Raising Arizona tried to, and ultimately failed to, pull off. It also has a terrific ensemble cast that doesn’t hit a false note. And perhaps most importantly, George Clooney is brilliant in the lead role as Ulysses Everett McGill, while I never thought Nicolas Cage settled into his role in Raising Arizona. Oh – and the film is also hilarious pretty much from beginning to end. That helps.
The film takes place in the South during the great depression – and begins with McGill along with Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) escaping from a chain gang. McGill has promised the two other prisoners he is shackled to a portion of the money he stole from a bank before being sent to jail - $1.2 million. If that seems to be a little too good to be true to you – well, you’re probably a whole hell of a lot smarter than Pete and Delmar who McGill, correctly, characterizes as “dumber than a sack of hammers”. The real reason McGill wants to escape is that his ex-wife Penny (Holly Hunter) has informed him that she is marrying another man – and taking their seven daughters with her. That don’t sit right with McGill – he’s the damn paterfamilias after all.
The Coens say they based the film on Homer’s The Odyssey, but also admit that they’ve never actually read it. That’s okay – I haven’t read it either, and chances are neither have you. We all know the basic story – or stories, I guess would be more accurate. Odysseus (or Ulysses) spends 10 years trying to get home to his wife, Penelope, after the fall of Troy. Like that other Ulysses, Clooney’s Ulysses has to deal with one strange event after another – one more set of people, some kind, some cruel before he can finally reach home. Along the way, they’ll meet a blind prophet, a one eyed bible salesman (John Goodman – great as always), George “Don’t Call Me Baby Face” Nelson (Michael Badalucco), Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), a black guitar player who sold his soul to the devil, the beleaguered Governor of the State (Charles Durning) and his competition in the upcoming election (Wayne Duvall). They also get distracted by a mass baptism, three sirens drawing them in with their song, and finally a KKK rally, which some manages to be ridiculous and scary at the same time – full of choreographed movement, giant burning crosses, strange chants and finally the bizarre revelation that the “colored guard in colored”. Oh, and the make some money by singing into a can.
The film looks great from start to finish – not least because of Roger Deakins brilliant cinematography that makes the South look dry, dirty, dusty and somewhat burnt – the destaturated color palette being one of the most distinctive used in a Coen movie (it was one of the first movies to use digital color correction – a special feature on the DVD shows just how different the color palette of the final film was from what was shot). The production design doesn’t really recreate the South of the 1930s – but the South as seen in movies of the 1930s. The title comes from Preston Sturges’ brilliant 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels where a producer of lame comedies dreams of making an important project entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou. The Coens are obviously having fun with that – there is nothing overly important about this film – but they are also clearly admirers of Sturges – as evidenced in the dialogue in this film, much of which you could see belonging to Sturges film. The Coens do add some modern twists to the movie that would not have been done back in the 1930s and ‘40s – in particular in the way the brothers deal with race, which is subtle yet unmistakable throughout the film. The film doesn’t look through or past the black men who are so often in the background of this movie – but right at time – their pain in unmistakable, even amidst all the comic chaos that surrounds them.
None of this would work however if it weren’t for the performances – which is what I think ultimately sunk Raising Arizona for me. Holly Hunter returns from that film – and that’s appropriate because I think her Penny here may well be relative of Ed in that previous film – as both have a very direct way of putting the men in their lives in place (As a reminder, I liked Hunter in Raising Arizona –one of the few things I thought worked perfectly). It goes without saying that Goodman is great as Big Dan Teague, an untrustworthy bible salesman with one eye (his appearance at the Klan rally may be the film’s best visual gag). Tim Blake Nelson, then a relative newcomer is hilarious as the dimwitted Delmar – Nelson has had to play a few dumb rednecks in his day, but none as gloriously dumb as Delmar. John Turturro seems to be relishing what will probably be the only time he is ever cast as a Southern hillbilly. Best of all is Clooney, who plays McGill as part Clark Gable with his rugged handsomeness, and part Cary Grant with his ability to handle ridiculously convoluted comedic dialogue. I have no idea what the Coens saw Clooney in before this film that suggested he would be great in a part this broadly comedic, but whatever their reasons, it worked out.
Finally, there is the music – a glorious concoction of classic and all but forgotten Bluegrass songs, arranged by T-Bone Burnett. The soundtrack became an even bigger hit than the movie was at the time (which is moderate at best for the film – but you couldn’t go anywhere and not hear the music). It fits in nicely with the rest of the film – nostalgic, but not overly so.
The Coens have made better films that O Brother, Where Art Thou – deeper films with more resonance and even funnier films (although for most directors, O Brother Where Art Thou would easily be their funniest). The film is very much a part of the Coen world – it loves McGill, but still delights in punishing him for his sins throughout the film – although unlike most Coen protagonists, they do pretty much allow him complete redemption by the end (then again, this is one of their comedies, and they often do that here). But in its own, relatively minor (perhaps) way, O Brother, Where Art Thou is still a pretty much perfect comedy – one that remains endlessly rewatchable, and gets me laughing every time.