O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)


(director/writer: Ethan and Joel Coen; screenwriter: based on “The Odyssey” by Homer; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editors: Roderick Jaynes/Tricia Cooke; cast: George Clooney (Ulysses Everett McGill), John Turturro (Pete), Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar), John Goodman (Big Dan), Holly Hunter (Penny), Chris Thomas King (Tommy Johnson), Charles Durning (Pappy O’Daniel), Ray McKinnon (Vernon Waldrip), Wayne Duvall (Homer Stokes), Daniel Von Bargen (Sheriff Cooley), Stephen Root (Radio Station Man), Michael Badalucco (George Nelson), Frank Collison (Wash Hogwallop), Del Pentecost (Junior O’Daniel); Runtime: 106; Universal/Touchstone Pictures; 2000)
“It was amusing but could never get over its limitation — a weak storyline.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Coen brothers have based their latest film on “The Odyssey” by Homer. Naturally, coming from them, it is a very loose interpretation of that Greek classic. Comedy-and-old-fashioned bluegrass and gospel music are what prevails, what gets left behind is the epic’s serious poetry. The film is closer to Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels than it is to Homer. This film even gets its title from the part in Sullivan’s Travels when Joel McCrea, playing a successful director, wants to stop doing comedy to make instead a serious socially conscious drama called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

The scene is set in Mississippi during the height of the Great Depression, where three chain gang convicts escape while chained together. Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) loves to talk fancy and vainly thinks he’s the smart one and by the process of elimination, he’s the self-proclaimed group leader (Ulysses is Roman for Odysseus). Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) are dolts and perfect foils for Ulysses. Pete is easily made a fool of by those who can’t resist how gullible he is and Delmar talks incessantly about getting back his farm before he can even talk about a woman or anything else. The three of them collectively being dumb-and-dumber-and-dumbest.

The film will display moments of visual splendor and a riot of comedy coming about through the characterization of the three stooge-like convicts, but overall the film flags in its effort to make the story more worthy than a few skits that work.

Since they are chained together, they must escape together; therefore, Ulysses makes up a story to tempt them to escape. He tells them that he knows where $1.2 million is buried from an armed robbery he committed, which the three of them call a treasure.

After their escape, they ride away from the nearby prison with a blind black man (Homer’s prophet) driving a railway handcar. He warns them that they will find a treasure out there, but not the treasure they’re seeking.

Seeking shelter with a kin of Pete’s, the three are turned into the sheriff (von Bargen). Pete explains these are hard times and I could use the reward money. But the trio escapes as Pete’s place burns down and the turncoat’s kid drives them out of there. The trio will proceed to get into one adventure after another. Ulysses is more concerned with tracking down some pomade called Dapper Dan which makes him smell pretty and look the way Clark Gable did as a matinee idol, than in going after the treasure. But the man with seven daughters says his real reason for escaping, is to stop his wife Penny (Homer’s Penelope namesake-Holly Hunter) from marrying a wormy politician (McKinnon).

On a deserted road, the convicts give a ride to a young black musician, Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), who says he just sold his soul to the devil so he could be a great musician. They decide to go with him into a rural radio station/recording studio. They tell the blind radio manager (Root) that they are a group called the Soggy Bottom Boys. They cut a catchy country tune and are paid ten bucks each, but tell the manager there are five of them. They then take off again and are unaware that the record becomes an enormous smash, with customers requesting the album that the store owners tell them is all sold out.

On the road again the three hitchhikers thumb a ride with the excitable George “Baby Face” Nelson,” who is pursued by the police while he’s firing his Tommy gun from the side of the car with tremendous glee. He only takes time out from shooting at the police to kill a cow. After robbing a bank together, he deserts the convicts because he feels depressed. Yet, he leaves them the money from the robbery.

The adventures continue as the boys are lured into the woods by a trio of sweet-voiced sirens and when they awaken the next morning, Pete is gone. Delmar mistakes the toad in Pete’s overalls for Pete. So he carries the toad around in a shoebox until a one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman as the Cyclops) squeezes the critter to death after beating the two over the head and stealing their bank money.

The boys run into a heated governor’s race that pits the unpopular incumbent Pappy O’Daniel (Charles Durning) against a fire-brand reform candidate (Wayne Duvall) whose motto, “Friend of the Little Man,” is endorsed by a broom-sweeping midget who accompanies him on his campaign stops.

The major skit is a wonderfully malevolent choreographed Ku Klux Klan rally that is disrupted by the boys in a comical fashion. The film reaches its climactic moment when the convicts sing in disguise at a political rally and get recognized with a standing ovation by the audience, as the Soggy Bottom Boys. Durning comes to their rescue from his KKK opponent, who snarls at the band for being integrated. Durning goes onstage with them and pardons them for their past sins, as he is grateful that his political career has been reinvigorated by his association with the popular singers. The racism prevalent in Mississippi at the time is glossed over in favor of sophomoric comedy gags, a revisionist point of view, and the belief that music acts as a healing for racial bigotry.

The story seemed to die when it tried to conclude in some sane way and explain away segregation as merely a temporary crisis in America. The story had no emotional impact or little complexity, even though it lightly touched on racial and religious issues. It was mostly carried by the comedy performances of the three dimwitted characters. George Clooney shows that he had an old-fashioned charm, much like the old Hollywood stars, plus he has a good ear for comedy and showed that he could carry a film.

Dan Tyminski did the singing for Clooney in the pic, as the trio sang the fictional hit “Man of Constant Sorrow.”

I was somewhat disappointed by this big mess of a film (trying to depict the Depression-era in the Deep South as if was in the midst of great social changes due to anything from its music to the TVA–with comedy prescribed as the cureall for everything). It was amusing but could never get over its limitation — a weak storyline.