O Brother, Where Art
review by Joe Barlow, 26 January
O Brother is a dazzling and
brilliant mélange of historical reinterpretation, biting satire and
a marvelous sense of adventure. 2001: A Southern Odyssey?
That's not the subtitle of Joel and
Ethan Coen's latest film, but it might as well be. O Brother,
Where Art Thou? is arguably the most peculiar film that's yet
come from a duo renowned for making peculiar films, and that's not
intended as a criticism. The Coen Brothers, the creators of such
eccentric cinematic delights as Fargo and Raising Arizona,
have made quirky off-beat characters their personal trademark, and
their latest offering continues their formula of placing bizarrely
likeable people in hysterical (and often hopeless) circumstances.
This time around the brothers find inspiration in one of
literature's greatest works, and their daring reinterpretation of a
classic story has resulted in a fiercely entertaining -- and often
visionary -- comedy.
Ostensibly a retelling of Homer's The
Odyssey, O Brother draws much of its inspiration from the
poem's premise, rather than the narrative itself. Set during the
Great Depression, the film chronicles the adventures of three
Southern fugitives and their search for a cache of buried treasure
stashed away by their leader, Ulysses (a magnificent George Clooney),
shortly before his incarceration. Along the way, the trio will
vanquish a fearsome cyclops (in the form of John Goodman, who turns
in an entertaining performance as a one-eyed lawman), succumb to the
charm of three beautiful sirens (three Southern belles, who croon
while washing their laundry in the river), and attempt to stop
Ulysses's wife, Penelope (Holly Hunter), from marrying another man.
It's a staggeringly fresh twist on one of the world's oldest
stories, and the resulting film has a great deal to recommend it. By
taking a much-beloved literary classic and imbuing it with their own
unique style, the Coens have created a spirited, lively
adventure/comedy that will delight audiences, regardless of their
knowledge of Homer's poem.
Like the best travel stories, O
Brother's structure is episodic in nature, meaning that the film
is comprised of a chain of cinematic short stories, each complete in
itself. Each incident flows smoothly into the next, with the
proceedings getting steadily more bizarre with each passing moment.
During one amusing subplot, for instance, the trio passes itself off
as a band of traveling musicians. When pressed to perform live at a
local radio station, the non-musicians reluctantly agree... and
their tune immediately becomes a monster hit. This type of satire is
very common of O Brother, and reveals the lengths that the
Coens, who collaborated on the screenplay, will go to in order to
get a reaction from their audience.
Much has been written of George
Clooney's performance here, and justly so; it's hard to believe that
this is the same man who left TV's ER because he no longer
found it "dignified enough." As Ulysses Everett McGill,
Clooney loses himself in a Southern persona outrageous enough to
suit the story's equally outrageous sense of the South--you Simpsons
fans might prefer to think of Clooney's Ulysses as a real-life
version of Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel--but the caricature contains
no malice. Although Ulysses's Southern roots are wildly exaggerated
(I'm from the South, y'all, and we don't really talk like that), the
performance is quite appropriate to the movie. It's all in good fun,
and sensitive Southern viewers will do well to place their tongues
firmly in cheek before entering the theater.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?,
is, if not the funniest film to emerge in the past twelve months,
certainly one of the most inventive. A dazzling and hysterical
reinterpretation of one of the world's most famous tales, the movie
succeeds on multiple levels, losing itself in biting satire and,
perhaps most impressively, its own marvelous sense of adventure.
It's a significant film for the Coens, re-establishing them as two
of America's most insightful observers of human nature, and once
again proving their complete mastery of filmmaking to the world at
large; indeed, only the Coen Brothers could "update" The
Odyssey by setting it eighty years in America's past.
Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
Tim Blake Nelson
PG-13 - Parents
Some material ma
be inappropriate for
children under 13