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O Brother, Where Art Thou?   B+

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Joel Coen
Writer: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning, Chris Thomas King, Michael Badalucco, Wayne Duvall.

Review by Rob Vaux

Movies by the Coen brothers have a weird logic to them, a warped view of the world that no one else can quite match. They approach their material with great reverence and affection, while simultaneously poking merciless fun at it. They elicit laughs from gruesome violence and conjure images as beautiful as they are ridiculous. The results land halfway between satire and supplication, a swooning embrace matched with a sucker punch to the guts. In their best films, they apply those sensibilities to brilliant plots and terrific characters, but even when they don't, the results are fun to watch.

Case in point: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a meandering shaggy dog that never really goes anywhere but has a marvelous time trying. Supposedly inspired by Homer's The Odyssey, it also borrows heavily from Moby Dick, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Wizard of Oz, as well as the Faulkneresque trappings of the Depression era South. It's clear that Director Joel Coen and his producer brother Ethan dearly love all of this material, and so enraptured are they with their subject that they never really focus it down to a meaningful plot. The surprising thing is how little that matters: their enthusiasm, imagination, and puckish sense of fun more than make up for O Brother's lack of storytelling discipline.

The action begins with convicted prisoner Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), working a Mississippi chain gang when he learns that his estranged wife Penny (Holly Hunter) is fixing to marry another man. He quickly concocts an escape with a pair of dim-witted fellow escapees, Peter and Delmar (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson, both marvelous), by convincing them that he has a great treasure buried in his old cabin. Once free of the law, the trio sets out on a literal odyssey across rural Mississippi, encountering stumping politicians, scheming Klansmen, a wicked trio of Sirens, and a even treacherous Cyclops by the name of Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) -- all in an effort to get home in time to prevent Penny's wedding.

Besides the most basic story thread, there's very little holding O Brother together. Our heroes wander episodically from predicament to predicament, connected by nothing but McGill's need to get home. Because there's no central mechanism pulling us along, the film often feels like a grab bag of ideas. Luckily, they're all good ones. Each scene plays like a little vignette, mixing edgy humor with terrific visuals and an appealing cast of characters. Folk music plays a large role in the film, and the soundtrack is redolent with Depression-era tunes (at one point, the convicts take a break from the action to record a single that makes them famous). The Coens use both the music and the gorgeous atmosphere (lots of yellow-green fields and dusty townships) to establish thematic consistency, which unifies the movie far more than its scattershot story.

Against this backdrop comes a series of unique takes on southern stereotypes, ranging from a bizarre Klan rally to a black musician (Chris Thomas King) who claims to have sold his soul to the devil. The Coens mix this with satirical pokes at their classical inspiration, helped out by Clooney's would-be Odysseus and fine supporting performances from Turturro and Nelson. McGill talks a good game, with his Clark Gable looks and penchant for hair pomade, but he's not nearly as smart as his mythic predecessor. When coupled with his relentlessly clueless partners, he becomes a comic joy, and watching the trio bumble their way through the Coens' mischievous set pieces forms one of the film's key pleasures. Their adventures all occur without rhyme or reason, but they're so richly realized -- and so clever in their presentation -- that you hardly care.

O Brother certainly isn't for everyone. The Coens' humor tends towards the bizarre and it takes a specific type to enjoy their decidedly skewed wavelengths. You can't truly appreciate the proceedings unless you're willing to become as lost as McGill & Co., and not every filmgoer wants to take that plunge. But fans of the brothers' previous work will find their one-of-a-kind talents intact here, always ready to bring a wicked smile to your face. O Brother may not really take you anywhere, but the trip alone is worth the price.

Review published 01.05.2001.

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