Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Charles Durning, John Goodman, Holly Hunter
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, based on Homer's The Odyssey
Directed by: Joel Coen
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and language
Running Time: 103
Date: 05/13/2000
IMDB

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Keeping on the Sunny Side

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1941), filmmaker John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) longs to make a serious movie. He's tired of making dumb comedies like Ants in Your Pants of 1939. He storms around his producer's office and whines, "I wanna make O Brother, Where Art Thou?" If we could transport John Sullivan (or indeed even Preston Sturges) from 1941 and sit them down to watch this new movie with the same title, I think he would be rather astonished. But for the rest of us, the Coen brothers have done it again.

The new O Brother, Where Art Thou? has nothing to do with Preston Sturges, save for its snappy dialogue. It has just a little bit to do with Homer's The Odyssey, which is credited as its source. In the new film, smart-talking Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney in a truly great performance) breaks out of prison, attached by chains to Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O'Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson). Ulysses promises the dim-witted pair treasure in the amount of $1.2 million, but his real mission is to get back to his wife (Holly Hunter) before she marries another man.

Like Odysseus, Ulysses encounters all manner of obstacles, kind people and strange people. Most notably, a blues musician named Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who has just met the devil at the crossroads and sold his soul. (Fans will recognize him as a tribute to the great Robert Johnson.) The escaped trio learn through Johnson that they can make a quick buck by "singing into a can," i.e. making a record. They lay down a smokin' version of the traditional "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," which quickly becomes a huge hit.

They also meet a blind prophet pushing a railway car, a struggling incumbent Mississippi politician (Charles Durning), a sneaky Bible salesman (John Goodman) who, with his eye patch, represents a Cyclops, and a group of "sirens" who seduce our trio and get them into more hot water.

Ulysses Everett McGill, with his predilection for Dapper Dan hair pomade and sleeping with a hair net, is one of the Coens' most amazing characters. His dialogue slides and zings out of his mouth and Clooney plays him with a combination of Cary Grant's suave comic wizardry and Clark Gable's raw manliness. With Out of Sight, Three Kings, and this, Clooney has announced himself not only as a major movie star, but a major actor.

Detractors of the Coen brothers accuse them of making fun of their subjects, which is entirely missing the point. The Coens paint a vivid picture of Americana, which gets so close to the truth it becomes slightly distorted. These are not people we see walking around Hollywood, or even California for the most part. Yet if you knew one of them in real life, you would be quick to point out that the movie reminded you of them. Similarly, even when the great Luis Bunuel was skewering his bourgeoisie characters, he still retained an affection for them. There's no question that the Coens are quite fond of their creations. They'd have to be, or the movie would slip into a cold exercise, like the films of Peter Greenaway (8 1/2 Women).

On an underlying level, O Brother, Where Art Thou? resembles Jean-Luc Godard's masterpiece Contempt (1963), in which screenwriter Michel Piccoli and director Fritz Lang attempt to film The Odyssey for producer Jack Palance. Like the Godard film, the Coens achieve a kind of self-awareness, using the conventions of literature and filmmaking to say a little something about life. (Exactly what they're trying to say is unclear, but that's part of the movie's charm.)

The Coens also exercise razor-sharp precision in their filmmaking. No one but David Cronenberg even comes close to their craftsmanship. You feel that every little gesture, reaction, movement, and delivery of dialogue is arranged exactly as planned. If that sounds constricting, it isn't. The Coens have a huge imagination and capacity for original thinking. They desire to explore the unexplored. If they make a gangster movie, they'll make it different from anyone else's gangster movie. But now that they've taken on The Odyssey, expect something you've never seen before.

It's true, the amazingly quirky dialogue will remind viewers of Raising Arizona (1987), but that movie was nothing but a brilliant little comedy. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an epic, an enormous story about insignificant people exploring the world in the middle of nowhere. It's also the best movie of the year.

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