After 17 years of filmmaking, the Coen brothers still seem incapable of taking anything seriously. It’s both a strength and a weakness, but moreover, it’s the defining characteristic of one of film’s most remarkably eclectic careers.
In the opening credits of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, writer-producer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen tell us the film is based on Homer’s Odyssey. Recently, they admitted they’ve never even read the Odyssey. They pulled the same stunt in Fargo, claiming it was based on a true story. It wasn’t.
But their latest film has many common threads with the epic story of Ulysses, whose name is shared by George Clooney’s character (perhaps the only guy in the South in the years following the Civil War to be named Ulysses, but hey). He’s the Moe of three stooges (also John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) who escape from a chain gang in 1930s Mississippi.
With Ulysses’ prodding, they hope to find buried treasure before it’s put underwater by a new dam. On the way, they make a survey of the Depression-era South in a typical—well, for the Coens, anyway—travelogue that includes everything from a bleating fat governor to a tortured black singer to a one-eyed Klansman.
The music is the real star of this movie, and once you hear it, you’ll know why. In Depression-era blues, the Coens have found an art form as inscrutable and profoundly painful as their vision of life. Like the blues, the brothers’ films don’t lend themselves to easy interpretation, and it makes them perfect partners in a story that feels like a long, sad song.
The hypnotic blues sounds of O Brother, Where Art Thou? may be simply a crutch, a pole with which this flimsy collection of grotesques can be supported. But what a crutch. These songs give the picture elements of both warmth and sadness that few of their mostly smug films have reached.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography—aided by computers that have washed certain elements of color from the film—is impressive in establishing a mood and a look. But the second-biggest contributor to this film’s memorable feel—after the music—is Clooney, who gives yet another better-than-a-TV-star-should-be performance as Ulysses, the hyperverbal leader and absent family man. Covering his hair with Dapper Dan pomade and flashing a toothy grin, Clooney is a bizarrely memorable character on par with the Coens’ best creations.
If only the rest of the film could make bluster and vulnerability as compelling as Clooney does. We can never shake the feeling that the Coens are mocking us for caring about what happens to their characters. The increasingly tragicomic situations in which our boys find themselves are heavier than they should be.
This film has little of the weightless comic touch that made The Hudsucker Proxy such a misunderstood masterpiece, and yet the Coens continue to flash such compelling imagery at us—everything from a riverbank baptism to a pie cooling on a windowsill crackles with possibilities—that we can’t shrug off the weight.
The Coens have reached the point where their work is defined by its quirks, rather than simply being augmented by them. The fascination with regional foibles that they displayed in Fargo again seems to be veiled contempt here. Some critics have called this film a sophisticated episode of Hee Haw!, and it’s not altogether untrue. Its ending is somewhat backhandedly touching, but the overriding feeling is one of mockery, not acceptance.
There’s much to like and ponder in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (the title is another smug joke; it’s the potential name of the film a rich director hopes to make to assuage his guilty liberal soul in Preston Sturges’ film Sullivan’s Travels). The Coens roll out a comprehensive collection of icons and images from our collective past, put them all in a big vat, and stomp on them. What comes out can’t easily be classified, but it’s certainly entertaining to watch these prodigiously talented brothers making something out of everything.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (PG-13) HH1/2 Directed by Joel Coen. Starring George Clooney, John Turturro and John Goodman.