|O Brother, Where Art Thou?|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 12 June 2001|
In the adequate making-of featurette included on this DVD, Joel & Ethan Coen describe 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' as a combination of the Three Stooges, a Ma & Pa Kettle movie, and Homer's 'Odyssey.' They might as well have included the 1939 'Wizard of Oz,' 'Moby Dick' and the blues legend that also gave rise to Walter Hill's 'Crossroads' (1986).
The title comes from Preston Sturges' great 'Sullivan's Travels' (itself just released on DVD). This wonderfully daft movie scrambles in these elements (Homer is actually credited) and many others, and still remains entirely itself. The Coens are uneven filmmakers, but at their best, with, say, 'Blood Simple,' 'Fargo' and 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?', they make vividly distinctive, engrossing and unique movies. They're not even like the Coens' own other films.
The movie is set in Mississippi somewhere in the 1930s, but we're never intended to take this as anything remotely like reality. When his buddies think Pete (John Turturro) has been turned into a toad (played by a frog), we can almost buy it. The movie is constantly on the brink of tipping over into fantasy; early on, it actually makes it momentarily, as our heroes encounter a blind seer on a railway handcart, who accurately predicts their future. And it's almost a musical all the way through, laced as it is with great old songs, both on the soundtrack and sung on screen. No wonder the CD has sold well.
The credits claim that Joel Coen directed and Ethan produced, but actually, as always, they directed (and wrote) the film together, a fact made clear in the featurette. The movie really is derived from Homer's 'Odyssey,' with various elements, such as the sirens and the Cyclops, popping up in altered but recognizable form. George Clooney's character is even named Ulysses, though he usually goes by his middle name of Everett.
He leads his pals Pete and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) in an escape from a Mississippi chain gang. Everett claims that he buried the $1.4 million loot from an armored car robbery in a valley about to be flooded by a lake created by the TVA. If the three of them can get there before the waters rise, they'll be set for life.
However, there are problems. First, they're betrayed by a Hogwallop, and have to flee the pursuing posse, making do with roasted gopher meat for a few days. Pete and Delmar end up baptized; Delmar's convinced this sets him out of the law's reach. They meet a young black guitarist, Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), who says he just sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for guitar-playing greatness. They happen upon an isolated radio station, and to get a few bucks, pretend to be the Soggy Mountain Boys, experts in old-timey music, and record "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" for the Pass the Biscuits Pappy O'Daniel Flour Hour. (Unknown to our heroes, the record becomes very popular.)
O'Daniel himself (Charles Durning) is the governor of Mississippi who, in a subplot, is facing opposition from reform candidate Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall). O'Daniel, given to swatting his son (Del Pentecost) with his hat, admires Stokes' campaigning abilities. He's scooting around the state with a midget, representing The Little Man, and a broom, showing how he's going to sweep the state clean.
Everett, Pete and Delmar fall in for a while with wildly enthusiastic bank robber George Nelson (Michael Badalucco), who falls into despondency when he's called Baby Face, and wanders off into the night. The trio are nearly seduced by some gorgeous sirens (Mia Tate, Musetta Vander and Christy Taylor) who are washing their clothes in a river and harmonizing on "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby." When they wake up later, Delmar is convinced Pete has been turned into a toad; Everett's not so sure, but has Delmar bring along the amphibian, just in case. They encounter Big Dan Teague (John Goodman), a one-eyed Bible salesman who's also highly larcenous -- he literally smells money.
And so the odyssey, or rather the Odyssey, continues, nodding to Homer as it goes. It's funny, graceful and highly ingratiating throughout, damned near lovable at times. It's very puzzling why some critics claim that the Coen brothers view their central characters with contempt, because as nearly as I can tell, they love all their characters, sometimes even the villains. Sure, Everett, Pete and Delmar are dopes, but that's the kind of movie it is, not a judgment on escaped Southern convicts.
Clooney apparently balked during shooting, unsure if he really wanted to be in the movie -- and nonetheless gives his most charming, movie-star-like performance to date. He's made up to resemble Clark Gable, and here, at least, has something like Gable's powerful screen presence. But unlike Gable, Clooney is also very funny; Everett is a cheerful guy, a little conniving, and more than a little egotistical. And man oh man, is he a talker. While still in chains, he asks a group of hoboes if any of them happened to be "trained in the metallurgic arts before straitened circumstances forced you into a life of aimless wanderin'?" He thinks he should be the leader of the trio because he is "the one with the capacity for abstract thinking." He advises the others, "it's a fool looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart," and turns down an offered meal of roast gopher with "a third of a gopher would rouse my appetite without beddin' her back down." It's wonderfully flamboyant dialog, soundly in period (for the most part), ripe, rich and colorful, and Clooney delivers it with charm, flair and innocence.
Turturro and Nelson are both excellent; Pete's a little smarter than Delmar, but you believe Everett when he says they're dumber than a sack full of hammers. Durning and Goodman are both great in their smaller roles. In fact, the film is beautifully cast from top to bottom.
The photography is extraordinary. To begin with, Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers now working, and the movie has a broad, epic look, with vast fields of golden wheat, cool forests, and old-fashioned towns. But as an additional documentary shows, the color was greatly altered; greens mostly became golds, blues pale grays, and strong reds vanished altogether. The movie seems to be taking place in a golden haze of memory, the past not as it was, but as we would like for it to have been.
The DTS presentation here is especially good. Don't look, or listen, for gigantically thunderous demonstrations for your subwoofer, but instead for how the music envelops us, how the Coens have evoked the early-fall setting of the movie with insect and bird noises wrapping us in a whispering haze of sound. The sirens' song is especially enchanting, as it should be. But so are the two renditions of "Man of Constant Sorrow" (in which Clooney lip-syncs to Dan Tyminski's singing), and Nelson's singing "In the Jailhouse Now." The 'Oz'-inspired Ku Klux Klan rally, and the big political meeting at the end, are also rich and tasty in terms of the sound mix and presentation.
The extras are relatively scant for a movie this recent. The Coens seems to shy away from doing commentary tracks; if they don't want to, they shouldn't have to, but I for one wish they DID want to -- they seem to have a great attitude toward their own movies, and when they are briefly interviewed here and there, are a lot more articulate than one suspects they think they are. A video of "Man of Constant Sorrow" is included, plus one of those storyboard-to-scene comparisons that seem like a good idea, but which really aren't.
But this is not a disc to buy for the extras -- it's one to buy for the terrific movie it is.