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With O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens have hit a Homer


Directed by Joel Coen

Written by Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring George Clooney, John Turturro

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Classification: NA

Rating: ***

The Coen brothers' latest film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? lays claim to inspiration that includes Homer's The Odyssey and the brilliant Hollywood comedy, Preston Sturges's 1942 Sullivan's Travels. Like almost everything else about this slight but provocatively original movie, the pedigree is mostly a fantasy. Turning the Hollywood Depression-era musical upside down, O Brother finds whimsy and song in the world of chain gangs, crooked politicians and Ku Klux Klan rallies in the deep south of the Dirty Thirties.

The avowed sources, along with fragments from Americana as varied as Petrified Forest, Moby-Dick and the Wizard of Oz, find their way into a meandering magic-realist narrative in which three prisoners on the lam run into a series of chance encounters. These encounters are sometimes angelic and sweet and more often grotesque.

The humour is off-kilter, deliberately slow, broad and very "old timey," to use a favourite adjective in the story. Characters have such names as Hogwallop and Waldrip, with the kind of caricatured performances such names imply. The rewards, though sporadic, include some unforgettable set-piece scenes and a gorgeous soundtrack of traditional spirituals and folk songs, both archival and newly recorded, put together by archivist-musician T-Bone Burnett.

As with the Odyssey, the hero is a wily operator named Ulysses, full name Everett Ulysses McGill (played by George Clooney). The preening and hyper-articulate Ulysses, who wears a pencil moustache and who always has a can of Dapper Dan pomade handy, has escaped from a highway chain gang with his two yokel companions, Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro). Their mission, via a series of misadventures, is to return to Ulysses's home to recover a missing armoured-car holdup treasure before his valley is flooded by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Ulysses also wants to return to his seven singing daughters and his wife, Penelope (Holly Hunter), before she remarries.

Riding and walking through fields of goldenrod and sepia-tinted colouring (meticulously shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins), the three men are hounded by a sheriff who bears similarities to the Devil. Along the way, they pick up blues musician Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who has just sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for guitar-playing talent. (Robert Johnson, upon whom Tommy is based, is just one of the historical figures alluded to in the movie; there's also a hair-raising encounter with George "Baby-face" Nelson, (Michael Badalucco) portrayed as a wildly bipolar manic-depressive.

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Together, the prisoners and Tommy Johnson find a radio-station recording studio where they cut a track, Man of Constant Sorrow, for quick cash. On their way out, they meet Mississippi Governor Pappy "Menelaus" O'Daniel (Charles Durning). He's running for his life against Homer Stokes, a clever politician who says he stands for "sweeping" the old government out of office and and standing up for the "little man"; he has a broom and a midget on stage to illustrate his ideas.

References to the Odyssey are loopily haphazard: There are several blind characters (as legend has the poet Homer to have been). John Goodman appears as a evil Bible salesman with an eye-patch, suggesting the Cyclops.

In the movie's most erotically imaginative scene, the three travellers hear some beautiful singing by the side of the road. They are drawn to three women washing their clothes in a pond, while singing the enchanting lullaby/spiritual Honey In The Rock. They are part sirens, part Circe: at the conclusion, Pete has been apparently turned into a horny toad.

The only scene that really equals the pond scene in visionary fantasy occurs where Ulysses and Delmar suddenly come upon a Ku Klux Klan rally. Using music that refers to The Wizard of Oz, the Klan rally is a disturbing amalgamation of the mechanical movements of the Nazi rally in Triumph of the Will and a Busby Berkeley musical.

As with Sullivan's Travels, the movie is an ambivalent comedy with a dark undertone. In Preston Sturges's movie, a Hollywood director (Joel McCrea) of mindless hit comedies decides to live the life of a hobo to research a serious film about the human condition called O Brother Where Art Thou? He learns, the hard way, that the "ordinary" people he admires from afar want escape, not preaching.

In the Coen brothers' movie, the most apparently benign encounters result in betrayal, robbery or sharp smacks on the head, though there doesn't seem much point in reading too much into it.

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The Coen brothers called the movie's politics "frankly primitive," which is accurate: The bad guys are Ku Klux Klan racists; the good guys are in favour of the desegregating power of popular music.

The tone is knowingly silly and darkly incongruous, an improbable blend of a Walker Evans photo book with a Ma and Pa Kettle comedy.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More


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