In honor of Inside Llewyn Davis (a movie everyone appears to have watched but myself), I decided to wade into the filmography of the Brothers Coen. There were a lot of possibilities for this week’s review, and I received suggestions from quite a few people suggesting everything from Blood Simple to The Big Lebowski, all of which are worthy of review in their own right. Instead, I settled on a movie I’ve never seen and which I heard wildly mixed things about. O Brother, Where Art Thou was nominated for two Academy Awards back in 2000, neither of which were Best Picture. (It was nominated for Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography). The movie is a wacky, moralistic comedy heavily inspired by classic movies despite the “adapted” screenplay based on Homer’s The Odyssey – a book the Coens admitted to never reading.
Set in the Deep South in the 1930s, three convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) escape from prison and go on the run, meeting all manner of people along the way.
Yep, a single line sums up the plot of O Brother, Where Art Thou and I’m not considering that a slight against the film. The best movies can have the simplest plot, and coming in a brisk hour and forty minutes, O Brother, Where Art Thou may seem aimless, but sure knows where it’s going. There are several allusions to Homer’s The Odyssey, particularly in the relationship between Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill and his ex-wife, Penny (Holly Hunter). The two character names notwithstanding, the trio of convicts have run ins with several characters from Greek literature such as sirens – in this case, beautiful singing women who turn in one of the men – and a Cyclops played by John Goodman rocking an eye patch.
Aside from the literary connections, the Coens strongest connection is the world of classic cinema. The title is derived from the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy, Sullivan’s Travels, and there are various connections to that film most of all. Taking place in the era of the Great Depression, the three convicts show the audience the harsh times had by all, but with a bit of comedy thrown in. The greatest medicine for harsh times is laughter, as Sturges’ comedy shows us, and Coens certainly ascribe to that principle, not knowing how much America would desperately need laughter a year later. The classic movie sensibility continues with an ending sequence turning to black and white, as well as the general tone.
George Clooney is oft-considered a modern-day Cary Grant, and he proves it as Everett McGill. Clooney is charming, charismatic, and the pragmatist of the group. He fails to believe in anything short of getting home to his wife, and yet he’s completely unable to admit how full of shit he is about everything, culminating in his praying to God for salvation only to take it back when his life is saved. His two compatriots, hilariously played by Turturro and Blake Nelson, are buffoonish and prone to believing in the unbelievable. Look at Blake Nelson’s character, Delmar’s face when the frog he believes is Turturro’s character, Pete, is squashed and killed. It’s hilarious because, as Everett believed, the frog isn’t Pete, but at the same time you fully believe that Delmar believes that.
The concept of faith is subtly injected and harped on throughout the movie. There are obvious moments such as the aforementioned sequence of Everett praying, and Delmar and Pete getting baptized, but the general tone is one of fate and prophecy, akin to a Greek tragedy. As the characters learn, it is better to believe in something than to feel alone and cast out into the universe. Again, it’s very much in the vein of classic movies like The Devil and Daniel Webster or Heaven Can Wait (although there are differences in mode of storytelling). A sly reference to Satan shows up through the character of Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), a musician who sells his soul to the Devil. It’s an obvious reference to the famous crossroads story of Tommy/Robert Johnson and the Devil, in this movie, ends up personified by the intimidating Daniel von Bargen as Sheriff Cooley.
Of course, the reason this is considered in league with the Coen’s latest is through the music. The soundtrack, composed by the brilliant T Bone Burnett is infectious, particularly the popular “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Clooney certainly sells the performance, despite the obvious lip-synching and you’ll be tapping your toes, even in the smaller moments like the musical numbers performed by Everett’s daughters.
Overall, personal preference is what my star rating comes down to. I thoroughly enjoyed O Brother, Where Art Thou but I wouldn’t consider it my favorite Coen Brothers movie (that honor is a tie between Fargo and No Country for Old Men). Clooney gives his best performance in a movie where he’s allowed to hearken back to an earlier time and let loose. The story is hilarious with a witty script filled with catchy one-liners and the soundtrack is infectious. It’s certainly worth watching and celebrating.