Film Reviews


By • Dec 22nd, 2000 •

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Considering what a Coen brothers fanatic I am, it took me a long time to catch up with O Brother Where Art Thou?, but I’m glad I finally did. This movie has been titillating me since I first heard the title, itself a kind of meta in-joke. (For non-film buffs out there, “O Brother . . .” is the serious, meaningful, good-for-you movie that lightweight comedy film director John L. Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea, wants to make in the 1941 Preston Sturges romp Sullivan’s Travels).

Nobody’s better at meta in-jokes than the Coen brothers, those merry pranksters who began as Hitchcock hommageurs (Blood Simple), with stops at kooky-with-a-capital-K comedy (Raising Arizona), period weirdness (Barton Fink), beautiful-looking but dramatically inert ‘satire’ (The Hudsucker Proxy) and the most unlikely comedy of the 1990s, Fargo. Whatever else they are, these guys are not consistent – and that’s a good thing.

Even more than their recent shaggy-dog story The Big Lebowski, O Brother only flirts with the conventions of ‘regular’ moviemaking – plot, coherence, believability – but unlike the annoying Lebowski, O Brother is actually quite enjoyable.

It features a dazzlingly comic performance by George Clooney, and I’m as surprised to be typing those words as you are to be reading them. More than ever I’m convinced that Clooney is a comedian in a leading man’s body, a belief reconfirmed after seeing the unintentionally funny Perfect Storm on a recent flight after suffering through it in the theater. He was kidding, right?

But I digress – as does O Brother at least a dozen times. Clooney, along with perpetually pissed-off John Turturro and saintly-stupid Tim Blake Nelson, play escapees from a chain gang, seeking a hidden fortune across the flat, sun-baked landscape of Depression-era Mississippi. (Roger Deakins’ cinematography has been nominated for an Oscar).

In their travels, the trio run across a smorgasbord of hustlers, charlatans, con men, criminals, greasy politicians and dirt-poor relations. (Another little Coen in-joke is that they run a credit saying the movie is based on ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer, and Clooney’s character is called Ulysses Everett McGill. Although some people don’t get the joke – the Coens got an Academy Award nomination in the category of best adapted screenplay. I doubt Homer is a member of the Writer’s Guild.)

But there I go again, off on a tangent. It’s that kind of movie – one where both terrible and wonderful things happen in rapid succession, where oracles, seers and sirens are constantly rubbing up against the reductive rationality of Clooney’s character. Clooney is made up to look like Clark Gable, and he has the same wised-up wise guy persona Gable had in many actual 1930s movies. But while Clooney does seem smarter and more verbally adept than his two companions, the joke is often on him as he ís really much more of an innocent than an Odysseus-like trickster.

His Penelope in Homer, the faithful wife waiting at home through the hero’s 20 years of travel is transformed (in the person of the stubborn, practical Holly Hunter) into the biggest mystery Clooney has to solve and the one he’s least equipped to deal with. When this Ulysses returns and tries to assert his rights as the paterfamilias of his children, six or seven angelic-looking little girls, they inform him that not only is Hunter about to marry another man, but that he’s not their father because their father was hit by a train. When Clooney protests that he hasn’t been hit by a train, Hunter coolly puts him in his place by saying ‘You could have been. Lots of respectable people get hit by trains.’

The movie’s fairy-tale atmosphere is helped tremendously by its music, a delicious concoction of gospel, soul, blues and bluegrass by a variety of artists. The music carries so much feeling that the Coens can stay on the smart, sassy surface and still not seem too heartless.

And they certainly do seem to like pushing the audience’s buttons with their own brand of heartlessness. In Fargo they mixed shocking violence with loopy humor in ways that sometimes made you feel a bit ashamed for laughing. Here they push the envelope of taste by staging a Ku Klux Klan rally as a Busby Berkeley-style musical number, complete with long shots of hooded Klansmen moving in artfully choreographed geometric patterns. Funny, but . . .

As with a lot of Coen Brothers movies, O Brother is a love-it-or-hate-it experience. If you can get into their ‘it’s only a movie’ groove, you’ll probably enjoy O Brother as much as I did.

Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

George Clooney,
John Turturro,
Tim Blake Nelson,
Charles Durning,
Michael Badalucco,
John Goodman,
Holly Hunter

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