Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:46 - Released 12/22/00

I have not been so thoroughly and omnidirectionally entertained in a long while as I was when I watched O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the latest off-the-wall comedy by the incomparable, multiple award winning writing/directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen. As with previous projects like Raising Arizona, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers again show their great respect for the written word, where the script (based on, of all things, Homer's Odyssey) is more than simply a tool for furthering the plot, but a canvas on which to paint beautifully intricate narrative landscapes and uncompromisingly memorable characters. While the story of O, Brother is twice- and thrice-twisted, and repeatedly and consistently unpredictable, the words themselves are no less engaging, with each line and sentence carefully chosen to make its relative impact.

As if this weren't enough, the film is visually stunning, using yellow-range filters and desaturated colors to evoke the vibrant yet dead-looking landscape of Depression-era Mississippi, and the epic cinematography by Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun) somehow counterpoints this. The entire film looks black, white, and yellow; the poverty of the characters and of the land is thusly emphasized, and yet there is a beauty, a majesty of spirit to this setting, as if the characters and indeed the film itself will not stand still for the abject misery of the times. The liberal use of old-time country/spiritual music (often earnestly sung by the characters themselves) adds great depth to this down-home, backwoods feel, and its subjective nature (even characters singing around a campfire sound as if they were recorded in a professional studio) is somehow humorous and richly enjoyable at once. Finally, the actors — George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, along with a large cast of supporting players in various smaller roles — make the experience consistently fun. Clooney bursts out from his established style with a comic depth I have not seen from him before, and Turturro and Nelson support him with hilarious honesty.

Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney), a smooth-talking bumpkin whose religious use of Dapper Dan brand pomade in his greasy hair is of utmost importance to him, and his friends Pete Hogwallop (Turturro), and Delmar O'Donnel (Nelson) are three 1930s prison escapees from Mississippi whose partnership is based solely on the fact that they are chained together at the ankles. They are united, however, by their mutual desire to find the 1.2 million dollars Ulysses says he buried at his home before his arrest. Promising each man $400,000, he convinces them to help him escape, and here begins their great journey to freedom. It is impossible to recount all the numerous adventures they experience, but they go from one tight spot to another, sometimes lucking into what seems to be an incredible opportunity, other times nearly being killed by someone or some thing, or each other, or the ever-present police and prison staff which dogs them throughout. As this story unfolds, each chapter teaches us something more about one or more of them. At one time or another, they are trapped in a burning barn, shot at, saved by Jesus, seduced by a trio of beautiful women, robbed by a smooth-talking bully, and befriended by famous criminal George "Baby Face" Nelson, and their fortunes ebb and flow as a result of each of these chance occurrences. But it is perhaps their unlikely recording of a hit single called "Man Of Constant Sorrow," under the name of the Soggy Bottom Boys, which has the greatest effect on their eventual fate. Among the multitude of actors playing small, supporting roles in this story (most of them hysterically funny) are John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning, Stephen Root, Chris Thomas King, and Michael Badalucco, each of whom plays a pivotal role in the turn of events.

It seems amazing that this complex and heavily populated story is only 106 minutes long, well below the 2-hour mark, and yet it moves briskly enough that as the end credits roll we almost wish for more. The Coen brothers have once again outdone themselves. *****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews | See FilmQuips Archive