O Brother, Where Art Thou?
directed by Joel Coen
(Universal/Touchstone, 2000)

O Brother Where Art Thou?, the eighth feature film by the Coen brothers, (well-known for their string of highly successful off-beat and quirky comedies), is yet another romp, this time a convicts-on-the-run caper set in 1930s Mississippi. That the antics of the three protagonist buddies are intentionally meant to echo and allude to one of the great foundation myths of western civilization, the Odyssey of Homer, is a pretense that does nothing to diminish the fun of this movie; rather, it adds depth and resonances to the proceedings. (The title also is a reference to Preston Sturges classic Sullivan's Travels -- a bit of cinema esoterica, fodder for fanatic film buffs!)

Steeped in 1930s period atmosphere, detail and the popular cultural zeitgeist of the day, all grist for the Coen brothers' satirical mill, the plot centers on a trio of lovable oafs who have just escaped from a chain gang (as seen in the opening). Giving bravura comic performances, the three stars George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson respectively portray the leader by default, Ulysses (amusingly vain and with a gift for multi-syllabic gab), Pete and Delmar. These characters' picaresque misadventures include narrow escapes from the pursuing arm of the law; meeting a blind seer; befriending a wandering, bluesy guitar-playing, soul-peddling African American, Tommy (the very talented Chris Thomas King); singing sirens; encountering a blind-in-one-eye, rather Cyclopean Bible-selling con man (John Goodman); a memorable run-in with the bank robber Baby Face Nelson (Michael Badalucco); and a bizarre and sinister KKK rally from which they rescue Tommy.

A highlight of the movie (already brimming with appropriate old-timey, country, blues and folk music supervised by T-Bone Burnett) occurs when the threesome and Tommy, as the self-styled "Soggy Bottom Boys," in an attempt to make a few quick bucks, record a single of "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow." This then, unbeknownst to the peripatetic pals, goes on to become a huge local success in a major plot thread that eventually leads to a climactic live performance so delightful and so revealing of the three stars' musical and movement talents, that this concert scene is worth the price of admission alone!

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is loaded with laughs as every type of Deep South character is lovingly lampooned with especially pointed barbs thrown at politics and politicians, marriage (Ulysses is hen-pecked by his wife Penny, played by Holly Hunter) and racism (a weirdly suspenseful lynching is narrowly foiled). The film also dazzles with its spectacular bucolic and pastoral locations, depicted with superb cinematography. Sets and costumes authentically create the period atmosphere as do the dialogues and repartee rendered in regional dialect, the idiomatic expressions of same providing much verbal humor. Trying to spot the references to the original Odyssey adds to the fun of watching this enjoyable upbeat romp so filled with arguably its greatest asset, foot-tapping, heart-pounding tunes, that the movie could rightfully be called a musical. Perk up your ears for rousing renditions of such traditional songs as "Down to the River to Pray," "You Are My Sunshine," "I'll Fly Away," "In the Jailhouse Now" and a lovely "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby" (sung by the sirens with more verses specially commissioned to expand it for the film). If feminists recoil from the lead women portrayed as either shrews or seductresses, it is still worthwhile to see O Brother, Where Art Thou? for all its other already enumerated virtues and the charismatic charm of its stars, as their odyssey is a joy and audiences will be glad they tagged along.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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