O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU: this is a film which is impossible to dislike
George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill
John Turturro as Pete
Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar
Charles Durning as Pappy O’Daniel
John Goodman as Big Dan Teague
Michael Badalucco as Babyface Nelson
Holly Hunter as Penny
Stephen Root as Radio Station Man
Action, Adventure, Comedy, Musical
Films by the Coen brothers have always inhabited their own richly, eccentrically imagined universe, but never before have they found one to accommodate such a wealth of unselfconscious fun. O Brother, Where Art Thou? has brio, wit, and style, and the whole picture is air-cushioned with appealing comedy and its own unassuming good nature.
Simply: this is a film which is impossible to dislike, and moves with an easy, approachable swing through the bleached and steaming landscape of bluegrass Mississippi, with its ornery confidence men and cracker-barrel politicians. It’s a film to tap your feet to, in every sense: not perhaps so easy with some of the brothers’ early work, composed as it has been in 5/4 and 7/8 time signatures.
George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson play Everett, Pete and Delmar, three sweaty convicts in the South during the Depression, who bust off the chain gang and go on the run. They are looking for the treasure that the smooth-talking Everett assures them he has got hidden, from the job that landed him in jail in the first place. In the course of this hunt, they find treasure of a different sort: in a ramshackle recording studio, the errant trio pass themselves off as The Soggy Bottom Boys and make a blues record, which becomes a smash hit.
In his wanderings, Everett assumes a sort of Odyssean status, and the Coens whimsically present their movie as the loosest and most amiable kind of Homeric epic, with – amongst other nudges – our heroes being seduced from their path by Sirens, meeting a sinister Cyclops in the form of the one-eyed Bible-salesman Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) and Everett finally returning to his Penelope in the form of his long-suffering wife Penny (Holly Hunter). And in the Homeric spirit, quite a few of the dramatis personae are blind, or partially blind.
But there is a more pressing and relevant form of ancestor worship: screwballmeister Preston Sturges, whose 1942 classic, Sullivan’s Travels, was about a director of light comedies, who longs to make a harrowingly earnest “message” picture about social injustice called O Brother, Where Art Thou? One of the distinctive successes of the Coens’ O Brother is the way it has managed to channel some of the spirit of Sturges in its zany dialogue and galloping pace, also cloning some of the earlier film’s defining moments: the old-time religion, the prison farm, the “church parade” of convicts watching a movie. The anxiety of influence is felt much more strongly from Sturges than the 3,000-year-old Greek poet.
This is far from being George Clooney’s first comedy role. In his younger, bigger-haired days, he was a veteran of Roseanne and dozens of unsuccessful sitcom pilots. In this film, he produces a novel, raffish charm as the silver-tongued rogue, and a certain old-fashioned masculine mass and substance, which he wears lightly, but in such a way as to signal unmistakablyhis arrival in the big-screen big league. Here, Clooney manages to combine a little of Clark Gable with a whisper of Cary Grant’s early incarnation as a vaudevillian stage comic.
As for his supporting men: Tim Blake Nelson gets to sing his own blues numbers (Clooney’s voice is dubbed by Dan Tyminski). John Turturro’s face is stuck in an expression of baffled disapproval, his jaw twisted round to make his face shaped like a J. Clooney is very much the leader of the pack.
But all three find their feet in this baroque, distinctive world, which the Coens devise with such intricate charm. Borges has a short story about a writer whose chef d’oeuvre is a multi-volume encyclopaedia about an imaginary universe; the Coens write one of these every time they make a movie. To take just one of the many flecks and touches: when Clooney can’t get hold of a can of Dapper Dan, his preferred brand of hair-cream, he is piqued to be offered another, absurdly called Fop. One of many happy inventions.
The only reservation I would maintain about O Brother is that the invocation of Preston Sturges reminds us that, somewhere amidst the wackiness, Sullivan’s Travels actually had serious things to say about real poverty and what real film-makers can really do about it. For all its accomplishment, there is nothing in the Coens’ film which speaks of this concern. But it is made with marvellous clarity and fluency, and Joel and Ethan Coen attain a comic simplicity that other film-makers can only dream of.
In the Depression-era deep South, three escapees from a Mississippi prison chain gang: Everett Ulysses McGill, sweet and simple Delmar, and the perpetually angry Pete, embark on the adventure of a lifetime as they set out to pursue their freedom and return to their homes. With nothing to lose and still in shackles, they make a hasty run for their lives and end up on an incredible journey filled with challenging experiences and colorful characters. However, they must also match wits with the cunning and mysterious lawman Cooley, who tracks men, bent on bringing the trio back to the prison farm.