O Brother, Where Art Thou?
By Gabriel Jinich
In the 1942 Preston Sturges classic Sullivan's Travels, light-fare film-director John L. Sullivan dreams of making what will be his first serious film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, described as a "mirror up to life…a true canvas of the suffering of humanity." But by the time Sturges is done with him, he has indefinitely postponed - if not completely abandoned - the idea. More than 50 years later, however, the insuperable Coen brothers have come to the rescue, taking on Sullivan's project and finally bringing it to life. Well, sort of.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is Joel and Ethan Coen's brilliant, hilarious take on everything from Sturges to Broadway shows, via Homer's Odyssey, the Wizard of Oz, and the Depression-Era photographs of Walker Evans. The plot, loosely based on the Homeric epic, deals with three fugitive convicts in 1930's Mississippi, as they try to reach a buried treasure before the Tennessee Valley Authority and its new dam project place it permanently underwater. Led by fast-talking Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), the trio - completed by John Turturro and an amazing Tim Blake Nelson - encounter such Odyssean characters as beguiling sirens, double-dealing politicians, a blind prophet and a Cyclops in the form of John Goodman's patch-eyed Bible salesman, Big Dan T. And while the other two are in it purely for the money, it turns out that Everett is actually trying to get to his wife Penny (Holly Hunter), who embodies everything but the dutiful faithfulness and patience of Homer's Penelope.
Did we mention it's a musical?
Ever since their mindblowingly self-assured debut with Blood Simple, the Coens have made one amazing, off-beat movie after another, and have done it all under the nose of a seemingly unsuspecting Hollywood. And while O Brother continues the more light-hearted tradition of Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, the brothers have never abandoned the artistry and intellect predominant in their more serious work (Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing). The photography by long-time collaborator Roger Deakins is, as in Fargo, nothing short of breathtaking, with its washed-out ocres and ambers depriving the movie's fairy-tale South of its luscious greens (The Coens decided half-way through the shoot that the overwhelming amount of green was not befitting the film's tone, so Deakins scanned the entire final cut into a computer and digitally gave the movie its fantastic and sometimes near-black-and-white look). It's overall a fun movie, with good performances (George Clooney truly stands out in a self-conscious homage/imitation of Cary Grant and Clark Gable), memorable one-liners ("we thought that you were….a toad"), and enough details and characters to fill up twenty of these reviews. Yet underneath the flash lies a deeper layer for those who care to dig in. This is not Sullivan's movie, but it's still Sullivan's American South, with it's cruel racism, extreme poverty, demagogue politicians and bright-men turned criminals for the sake of survival. It's not Homer's Odyssey, but it's still a Homeric world, with the belligerent Zeus and Athena replaced by all warring forms of Judeo-Christianity and all sorts of popular superstitions. And while this is a fantasy, it is one that - like the Disney cartoons some prisoners watch in Sullivan's Travels- is needed and created by suffering people in times of want.
Watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? for the references to Homer or the allusions to Sturges. Watch it for the fast-paced comedy, the insane action scenes, or the great music. Watch it for the ill-fated cows or the Busby Berkeley Ku Klux Klan musical number. Or watch it because it is, like every good movie from Sturges to the present, a true pleasure to see.