O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Movie Information

Genre: Comedy
Director: Joel Coen
Starring: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman
Rated: PG-13

Reviewed Feb 8, 2006

One of the delights for me of movies coming back around for film society and other special showings is the opportunity it provides for reassessment — and the simple excuse to watch them again. Not having seen the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? in some time, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it today. I was pleased to find that it held up quite nicely on every level, and that it still stands out in my mind as one of the Coens’ best works.

Taking a tip from the great Preston Sturges, who made a movie called Sullivan’s Travels about a comedy filmmaker (played by Joel McCrea) who wants to make a serious movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens imagined his film (and occasionally quoted it, along with quite a few others) as a variant on Homer’s The Odyssey set in the Depression-era South.

It’s a daunting concept, but they pull it off nearly all the time (the Sirens sequence is a slight exception) with a richness of invention, both cinematic and literary, and an astonishing level of cinematic literacy. Yet the film goes way beyond its Sturgean underpinnings (which extend even to the style of dialogue) and into nods to The Wizard of Oz, Busby Berkeley, King Vidor’s Hallelujah, Frank Borzage’s Strange Cargo, et al. — all of which are fully integrated into the film, not grafted on.

Scarcely promoted by Touchstone Pictures, which apparently had no faith in it, O Brother spawned a hit soundtrack album and D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary on the music, Down From the Mountain, and appears to be well on its way to becoming a bona fide classic of American film. Rated PG-13 for some violence and language.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

Original review

In 1941, Preston Sturges made a film called Sullivan’s Travels about a comedic filmmaker wanting to make a serious film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?. After going on his travels, Sullivan decides not to make his serious film after all.

Now, Joel and Ethan Coen have made it for him — or crafted what they imagine the mythical film might have been — creating possibly their finest work yet. Rather than the grim movie suggested in Sullivan’s Travels, they have given us an essentially comic version of Sullivan’s proposed film about “tramps, people sleeping in doorways and eating out of garbage cans.” In itself this is fitting, since Sullivan’s Travels is itself a quirkily comic take on some pretty serious subjects. And who today is quirkier than the Coens? They boast an ear for Sturgean dialogue, a love for the peculiar and a unique visual style.

Early in the film when our three chain-gang refugees (George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) meet up with a blind man (Lee Weaver) on a railroad hand cart, it’s obvious that they have inherited the mantle of Sturges. Revealing that he works for “no man” and has “no name,” he’s met with Ulysses Everett McGill’s (Clooney) “voice of reason” assessment, “Well, that right there may be the reason you’ve had difficulty finding gainful employment. You see, in the mart of competitive commerce …” Undaunted, the blind man continues, “You seek a great fortune, you three who are now in chains. You will find a fortune, though it will not be the fortune you seek. But first you must travel — a long and difficult road, a road fraught with peril. You will see things, wonderful to tell.”

In addition to their take on Sullivan’s Travels, the Coens have actually adapted Homer’s The Odyssey to tell their tale of three chain-gang escapees in rural Mississippi, circa 1934. They also draw on Frank Borzage’s Strange Cargo, with its three Devil’s Island escapees led by Clark Gable — whom George Clooney resembles here. Few films have as many perfectly integrated references to “Golden Age” movies as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but then few filmmakers have this kind of knowledge of movies nor the nerve to use that expertise to their own ends.

When the film arrives at its most amazing set piece — a chilling Klan rally that combines a Busby Berkeley dance number look with the Witch’s guards from The Wizard of Oz — the Coens have transformed their references into a language of their own. This is but one phase of the multi-layered film, which revels in the off-center plot contrivances and peculiarities that marked Sturges’ work. (Sturges would have loved the idea of bank robber George “Baby Face” Nelson as a manic-depressive who resents being called “Baby Face” and — on a manic high — is delighted by the prospect of getting the chair!)

It all works and is lovingly funny and stunningly presented. Shot in wide-screen format in largely muted colors, the film is invariably striking. The blues- and bluegrass-infused soundtrack (filled with period songs, blues songs and spirituals) is infectious and effective, nearly making the movie a musical. All the actors are perfect, and Clooney’s turn in the lead should make the man into more of a full-fledged — or in the language of the film, bona fide — star than he already is. Clooney truly comes into his own here, in a performance marked by remarkable charm and wit. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is, I believe, destined to become a genuine American classic.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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