Film Review: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)


When it comes to Coen Brothers films, the author of this review often find himself at odds with majority of critics. Many of the films that are worshipped, like The Big Lebowski, I find underwhelming, while those that are deemed disappointing, like The Hudsucker Proxy, I consider extraordinarily good. This, however, usually doesn’t happen with films that fall in the middle, like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000 musical written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

The plot, which is very loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, is set in 1937 Alabama. Protagonist is Everett Ulysses McGill (played by George Clooney), convict at the prison farm who uses opportunity to escape, together with two other members of his chain gang – Pete (played by John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (played by Tim Blake Nelson). The group aims not only for freedom, but also for treasure Everett has stashed before being arrested. Along the way they experience strange adventures and meet even stranger set of characters – Daniel “Big Dan” Teague (played by John Goodman), one-eyed bible salesman; Tommy Johnson (played by Chris Thomas King), blues musician who sold his soul to Devil; Mr. Lund (played by Stephen Root), blind owner of radio station; three seductive “sirens”; famous bank robber Baby Face Nelson (played by Michael Badalucco) and many other. All the time they are pursued by ruthless Sheriff Cooley (played by Daniel Van Bargen). Gradually, their situation gets complicated when they are involved in electoral race between governor Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel (played by Charles Durning) and Homer Stokes (played by Wayne Duvall).

Like in many of their films, Coen Brothers in O Brother, Where Art Thou? show deep knowledge and great appreciation of Hollywood history, as well as give modern makeover to characters, plots, tropes, genres and styles from many decades ago. In this particular film they aim for various genres characteristic for 1930s and 1940s – Busby Berkeley musicals, gangster films and populist comedies (very much like Preston Sturgess’ Sullivan’s Travels with protagonist’s line of dialogue which was borrowed for the title). Coen Brothers have covered at least two of those genres before – gangster films in Miller’s Crossing and populist comedies in Hudsucker Proxy, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? represents their first attempt of musical. It isn’t the most successful, because, apart from interesting concept, Coens’ script and their directing style shows too much tendency to show off, often at the expense of plot cohesion. Some of the scenes are weak, like Ku Klux Klan meeting choreographed into dance number and the flood scene near the end doesn’t make much sense. Coens didn’t win fans of Classics by their own admission that they had never read Homer’s text and their reinterpretation of ancient Greek text at times looks too mechanical, yet at the same time meaningless for audience that won’t notice references to Greek mythology in 1930s Alabama.

What ultimately rescues this film is very good cast. George Clooney works very hard to resemble Clark Gable as much as possible, sometimes making himself almost unrecognisable to his regular fans. Always dependable John Turturro delivers another good performance as protagonist’s sidekick, but the true discovery is Tim Blake Nelson, who gave deeply humanistic dimension to the character of Delmar. Some members of the cast are, however, disappointing, like Holly Hunter in poorly written and almost redundant character of Everett’s ex wife. What is most likely to stay in audience’s memory is authentic bluegrass music and couple of likeable songs. However, at the end of the day, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of those Hollywood films that sound better then they look.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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