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For many cinema buffs the phrase
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is more than an in-jokeits a password,
a touchstone. Derived from Preston Sturges Sullivans Travels,
its the name of the serious motion picture that director John Sullivan
wants to make about life in the Depression. Sturges used the joke to take digs both at
artists whove grown too isolated from real life and the executives willing to
greenlight Sullivans project so long as he promises to put a little sex in
it. Sturges Sullivan never got to make his picture, but now Joel and Ethan
Coen have delivered it to us 60 years after the fact. It may not be the movie that
Sullivan had in mindits too damn funny, for one thingbut it strikes a
blow for social justice that Sully would have approved of. And it even has a little sex in
It wouldnt be chivalrous to describe O Brother, Where Art Thou? in too much detail: too much of its pleasure flows from the easy way its larger-than-life incidents roll up out of nowhere. Suffice it to say that Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), Delmar ODonnel (Tim Blake Nelson), and Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) are three escaped convicts living one jump ahead of the posse in Depression-era Mississippi. The promise of sharing a mysterious buried treasure leads the trio through a landscape crowded with fantastic versions of American typespolitico fatcats, nomadic bluesmen, Bible drummers, and bank robbers. The Coens have drawn on that mother of all road epics, Homers The Odyssey, to give some semblance of structure to their story, retrofitting Odysseus 20-year journey with homier proportions. Some of the parallels, such as John Goodmans Cyclops, are transparent at first blush; others require a little teasing out. (The Scylla and Charybdis that the convicts must choose between have mutated into a burning barn and a band of trigger-happy lawmen.) The parallels are deliberately makeshifttheyre only dimples in the movies already happy facebut they give shape to some of the movies most memorable sequences.
O Brothers world may be populated by Sirens but its warmed by a purely American sun. Baby Face Nelson and the Ku Klux Klan walk directly into the picture, while Robert Johnson, The Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick, Thieves Like Us, and William Faulkner cast their shadows over it at one point or another. Sturges influence runs through more than the title: a famous scene from Sullivans Travels is replayed from a new perspective, and many of the movies characters are pure Sturgesian offspring. (Charles Durnings governor could be a country cousin of the mayor in Hail the Conquering Hero!) Watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? is like sinking into a multi-tiered cake thats stuffed with the fruits of the American landscape. The screen is littered with pomade tins and department store catalogs; a lynch-party is choreographed like a football halftime show; a barnstorming gubernatorial election fills out one of the movies corners. Roger Deakins lush photography shows off the rural burgs and moss-bearded swamps of western Mississippi in the most serenely beautiful imagery the Coens have ever put on film. And all of this is animated by a multi-hued soundtrack of old blues, spiritual, and country tunes sung by a cadre of distinguished contemporary artists using recording techniques from the thirties. Some of the songs are seen as they were performed live within the film, but all of them are worked so smoothly into the story that not until after the fact do you realize that youve just sat through, among other things, a different kind of musical.
The promiscuous allusiveness in O Brother, Where Art Thou? has more emotional traction than it does in most of the Coen Brothers work; theyve made a warmer, more accessible movie than were used to getting from them. Less self-consciously irreverent than The Big Lebowski, less inchoate than Barton Fink, O Brother doesnt make us swat our way past a lot of attitude and mind-games: the archness that slides into smart-aleckiness, the opacity that feels like a refusal to commit to meaning. O Brothers bearings are so clean that even a pair of impeccably stupid walk-on characters dont raise the usual suspicions about the Coens attitude towards the little people. When Everett hunches over a radio stations microphone to belt out I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow and the blind station manager turns his freakishly twisted eyebrows towards the ceiling in rapture, we know exactly whats going onwere all enjoying a marvelous song.
The movie has three or four dazzlingand I mean dazzlingset-pieces, and these are balanced by unexpected pockets of tenderness, such as Tim Blake Nelsons little campfire speech about what he has planned for his share of the loot. But all of the action, be it large or small, aims towards a point late in the picture when the communitys dragons are slain and its heroes finally vindicated. Jubilation is a rare commodity in American movies, but in this moment O Brother, Where Art Thou? picks us up with its earthy sense of harmony and goodwill. It makes you want to lift your voice and sing along, for the Coen Brothers have put it all together.
- Tom Block