Some people just don’t get the Coen brothers. I know, I used to be one of those people. Since The Hudsucker Proxy, I get them, I love them – and since Fargo, so did everyone else. O Brother is an interpretation of The Odyssey, and a Homerian love song to American roots music. Don’t let either of those facts scare you, but know that a working sense of the general idea of the Odyssey helps you appreciate the story arc (which, taken at face value, might seem a tad unreal) – but a decent knowledge of it makes it funnier. The Coens are well-known smartypants, anyway, and they also reference some musical gags to boot. They run into real life historical figures, lending credence to the mythos of the story. A scene laden with inside layers and gags is when our three boys meet Tommy Johnson at the crossroads. I had to be told about it, so your homework is to look up why that’s funny.
George Clooney – he’s funny, he’s charming, he’s erudite, and he plays cornpone better than I would have imagined. He’s Ulysses, by the way, (aka Odysseus) and drags his men all across the world looking for treasure, after a chat with the oracle, of course. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson are his cronies, and what a fantastic ensemble! Coen vets John Goodman and Holly Hunter show their faces – it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Goodman is the cyclops! Stephen Root has a small but funny and impressive role at W E Z Y. It doesn’t matter that the story arc is a wee bit strung together, except the small disservice done the film is that the Coens seem to take it in stride that we all read The Odyssey last year and so they skip de skip from trial to tribulation, everything weaving a complicated noose that they could slip and fall into, or use to save themselves, if only they choose wisely. It’s cool, though, because if you understand the style of the Coens, and love it, you should love this one as well. It’s more Raising Arizona and Hudsucker Proxy than Fargo or Big Lebowski.
Did I mention the score! The music! Fantastic! The song you heard in the preview is pretty indicative of the musical tone of the movie, so if you don’t think you could handle that, you shouldn’t see this movie. It’s 1937 deep South Depression era cracker music, and it’s gospel, spiritual, and woeful tunes. Joel and Ethan Coen don’t spend tons of time explaining back story or motivation either, possibly because these are simple folk in a relatively simple situation, or possibly because it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. It’s heavy on the Cletus and light on the treatise. Many of Homer’s lessons are slipped in so quietly, you have to (ahem) look them up on the web to realize they were there at all. Example: A dead father is better than one who is lost or is a coward. Not a major plot point, but dealt with. I don’t mean to make this sound like a ponderous art film – it’s really a fun, Hee-Haw revival that happens to have some seriously classical and subtle roots. Bonus: they shot a scene where they shot Tara, I swear!
My personal favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins, bathes ol’ Mississippi with a golden glow, filling the air with portent and glamour, even when looking at the amazing cast of character actors, bizarre faces, and grungy, filthy, desperate people. Heedlessly bigoted phrases bandied about in those days are tucked into ironic little moments (I don’t want to give anything away), putting new spins on their original roots. The sirens, out of their mythological context, seem weird and random, but I wouldn’t cut their segment for anything. It’s an odd, charming movie, not for everyone, but definitely for Coen acolytes. And buy the soundtrack.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/22/00
Time in minutes 102
Director Joel & Ethan Coen
Studio Touchstone Pictures