O Brother, Where Art Thou?
review by Joe Barlow, 26 January 2001

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.

Directed by:
Joel Coen

George Clooney
John Turturro
Tim Blake Nelson
John Goodman
Holly Hunter
Charles Durning

Written by:
Joel Coen
Ethan Coen

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned
Some material ma
be inappropriate for
children under 13








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