O Brother, Where Art Thou?

I sincerely hope that the inventive Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t tormented by their biggest success, Fargo, for the rest of their lives. The Coens have bent over backwards not to repeat themselves; their follow-up to the frozen, rigorous Fargo turned out to be the amiable shaggy-dog Raymond Chandler goof The Big Lebowski, which annoyed some fans because … it wasn’t Fargo. Their new one, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, may already be suffering from non-Fargo-itis (the critics have been unkind). Actually, the most relevant comparison to O Brother in the Coen portfolio is the slaphappy, yodelling Raising Arizona; and, yep, it’s not Raising Arizona, either. On its own loopy terms, though, it worked for me.

Someone at Universal decided to give the Coens a lot of money to recreate Depression-era Mississippi, right down to the period clothing on every extra in the crowd shots. If nothing else, O Brother is big Hollywood entertainment seen through an indie lens (which, for this film — a first for the Coens — is super-wide Panavision, the better to get that epic feeling). Based, so we’re told, on Homer’s The Odyssey, the story tracks three escaped chain-gang inmates — Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) — on their quest to find some loot buried by Ulysses (“a million-point-two dollars,” we hear repeatedly, in a possible spoof on box-office numerology).

If we’re to have an anecdotal sketchbook movie, we might as well unleash the Coens on it; they still bang out the most elaborately eccentric dialogue never heard outside a Coen film (George Clooney grins almost nonstop, aware that he’s reading the deftest wordplay of his career since snarling his way through Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn script), and they give their three heroes three movies’ worth of vivid, freshly minted characters to run across during their journey. Some, like John Goodman’s Cyclops-like salesman and a trio of bathing, bewitching beauties, are imported from Homer and given the Coen once-over; others, like soul-selling guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) and George “Baby-Face” Nelson (Michael Badalucco), are postcards from the Depression.

O Brother is simply the Coens luxuriating in a period setting and having a great time. Critics who dislike the Coens always slam them for making fun of the characters and worlds they so painstakingly build, but I’ve never gotten that sense from their work; you either accept the Coens’ deadpan-absurdist sensibility or you don’t, and their characters, for me, are never quirky just for the sake of quirkiness. Even a borderline-slapstick farce like O Brother, whose most memorable moments include a Ku Klux Klan sequence that suggests an unholy union of Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl, lavishes care and attention on the kind of faces you’ll never see in a typical youth-appeal thriller starring Ryan Phillippe.

Whether it’s a man apparently turned into a toad, a picnic that turns into a beating worthy of WWF Smackdown, or a chain-gang brought en masse to a movie and taking their seats in perfect synchronicity, the Coens enjoy every bit of weirdness they put on the screen. They don’t make fun of the wall-to-wall bluegrass music, which, as supervised by T-Bone Burnett, comes to seem like the movie’s heart and soul, approaching something like grace even when our heroes are singing (as “the Soggy Bottom Boys”) while smothered in ridiculous fake beards. I wouldn’t rank O Brother, Where Art Thou? as the Coens’ best work (for me, Miller’s Crossing has yet to be unseated); then again, I wouldn’t rank it as their worst, either, perhaps because they have yet to make a “worst” film. Least best, maybe? Let’s just say the Coens are still doing what they do, and nobody else is doing anything remotely like it.

Explore posts in the same categories: coens, comedy, musical

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