O Brother, Where Art Thou?

 
Laura Clifford 
Robin Clifford 
Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney, "Three Kings") takes his ball and chain mates Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson, "The Thin Red Line") and Pete (John Turturro, "Rounders") on an escape from a 1930s Mississippi hard labor camp. The three embark upon an adventurous road trip in a race against time as Everett's gold is buried in an area slated to be flooded by the Tennessee Valley Authority in Joel and Ethan Coen's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Laura:
The Coen brothers excel at recreating American film genres and styles. The ambitious "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" bears more than a passing resemblance to its namesake, Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" (it was the name of the serious film comedy director John L. Sullivan (Joel McRea) wanted to make in that film before he discovered the value of comedy).

The threesome are immediately in hot water when Pete's cousin, whom they went to for shelter, turns them in. ('Damn, we're in a tight spot!' pronounces Everett.) Menancing Sheriff Cooley (Daniel Von Bargen, "The General's Daughter") and his pack of bloodhounds is never far behind them from this point on. After stealing a car, they pick up a black blues guitarist, Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), hitchhiking at crossroads in the middle of nowhere after selling his soul to the devil. After a brief interlude where Delmar and Pete get baptized they're cutting a record at a remote radio outpost as the Soggy Bottom Boys. Unbeknownst to them, their record climbs the charts as they cross paths with Baby Face Nelson (Michael Badalucco, "Summer of Sam"), lose Pete to a trio of river Sirens (Delmar's convinced they've turned him into a toad), get beaten and robbed by a maniacal bible salesman, Big Dan Teague (Coens' vet John Goodman), and rescue Tommy from the Ku Klux Klan in a scene straight out of the "Wizard of Oz!" Then there's the film's double climax as Governor Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning) challenges rival Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall, "The Deep End of the Ocean") at a political rally while Everett attempts to woo back his wife Penny (Holly Hunter) followed by the final showdown with Sheriff Cooley.

The film is surreally funny, featuring oddball Coen humor such as Baby Face Nelson shooting at cattle ('Oh George, not the livestock!' wails Delmar) and Everett's constant search for his brand of hair pomade (Dapper Dan's). While it doesn't reach the heights of the Coens' very best ("Fargo," "Millers Crossing," "Blood Simple") because of its meandering ways, it's a solid middle effort with charm to spare.

George Clooney channels the comedic charm of Clark Gable in a stylized, yet pitch perfect performance. Preening in a mirror or issuing the goofiest of dance moves as a Soggy Bottom, Clooney fits into the Coen brothers' brand of comedy like a custom tailored suit. Tim Blake Nelson, known more for his writing/directing skills behind the camera ("Eye of God"), is sweetly stupid as the trusting, animal loving Delmar (butterflies are always drawn to this character). John Turturro is the high strung, manic member of the threesome. Of the supporting players, Stephen Root (TV's "Newsradio") gets some mileage out of a brief appearance as a blind radio station manager while Durning blusters and flusters as Pappy O'Daniel with his two yes men and lookalike son Junior (Del Pentecost). Other cast members mostly go through the motions.

The film is beautifully shot in a golden glow by the Coens' frequent cinematographer Roger Deakins ("Fargo"). T Bone Burnett provides the authentically antique sounding music.

B

Robin:
The Coen brothers are back again, this time with Homer's "Odyssey" as the backdrop in their tale of three fugitives from a Mississippi chain gang who trek across the South to find a secret treasure in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Right for the beginning of "O Brother" the Coens grab your attention with a chain gang of prison inmates breaking rocks along the road in unison to a work song. The camera flows around the hard toiling men, giving a visually exciting symmetry to the scene that ends with our three heroes - Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro) - escaping across a cotton field. It is the beginning of a journey that takes on different meanings and urgencies to each member of the trio.

A strong suite, as always with the Coen brothers, is the depth of character of the folks they create in their films. Their characters are goofy and comical, like Nicolas Cage in "Raising Arizona"; or, dramatic, as Albert Finney and John Turturro in "Miller's Crossing"; and, even a mix of the two with Frances McDormand in "Fargo." In all cases, and in "O Brother," too, the characters populating their films are three-dimensional people.

Ulysses Everett is a handsome, hair-obsessed petty criminal with a silver tongue and not a lot in the brains department. But, he seems like a genius when compared to the simple, sweet Delmar and the maladjusted Pete, who follow their self appointed leader to a promised treasure of $1.2 million. Their odyssey takes on the mystical proportions of Homer's original material as they meet all manner of people along the way, including those dangerous sirens who beckon them onto symbolically rocky shoals and a Cyclops who beats them and takes all their money. There is magic, too, when Delmar believes that Pete was turned into a horny toad by the sirens.

The story meanders through the different vignettes of the boys' adventures, giving the flick a choppy, episodic feel that disrupts the overall flow. Some of the interludes are an epiphany, though. The trio becomes a quartet when they pick up guitar-playing Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) and visit a radio station in the middle of nowhere, run by its blind owner (Stephen Root). They become the Soggy Bottom Boys for the sightless Radio Station Man and, without their knowledge, are recorded as they sing the traditional tune, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow." It is a wonderful moment of moviemaking and gives us, in my mind, the best movie song of the year.

Contrasting this and other wonderful moments (the sexy seduction by the sirens comes to mind) are some pretentious bits that detract from the overall quality of "O Brother." In particular, near the end, is a scene where Ulysses, Delmar and Pete crash a Ku Klux Klan rally to save Tommy from being lynched. The scene is overblown and flashy and reeks of "The Wizard of Oz." They don't say "lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" and there's no Dorothy, but it is the Land of Oz we're seeing here.

The highs and lows of the story flow are tempered by fine acting on several levels. George Clooney is funny, charming, a little dumb and one of the handsomest actors in the business today. He has the charm of a 30's movie idol and is able to put himself into silly situations with dignity. Ulysses has an ongoing obsession with his hair, risking life and limb to get a particular brand of pomade and a supply of hairnets. His vanity will come to plague him as it would any mystical hero-wanderer.

While Clooney is the name draw for "O Brother," the show stealer is Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar. The heretofore unknown Nelson is terrific as the simple convict who, at one point, hears the word of the Lord and joins members of a church congregation in their mass baptism. Delmar is saved and dedicates his life to doing good and provides a richness to his simple character that makes him shine. The taciturn Pete, as played by longtime Coen collaborator Turturro, is the sullen member of the trio and gives them the necessary angst. All together, the tuneful triumvirate is a mix of the Three Stooges and the Three Musketeers as they prove to be buffoons, albeit brave ones.

The colorful supporting cast is rampant with Homerian characters to meet and get to know along the way of the boys' odyssey. Charles Durning appears as incumbent governor Pappy O'Daniel, who keeps crossing paths with them in his bid for re-election. John Goodman is wicked as the one-eyed bible salesman and con artist, Big Dan Teague. Michael Badalucco is manic and outrageous as outlaw and bank robber extraordinary, George "Babyface" Nelson. Stephen Root is amusing as the blind DJ, rep'ing one of the many references to the sightless that abound in the film in mystical ways. Holly Hunter is wasted in the small role as Ulysses' estranged wife, Penny (and the real reason for this adventure, not secret treasure).

Techs are, as expected in a Coen brothers venture, first class. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has worked on five previous Coen films, captures the sultry atmosphere of the South. The photography complements the lush period production and costume provided by Dennis Gassner and Mary Zophres, respectively. Once again, Roderick Jaynes - the alter ego of Ethan and Joel Coen - is on board as editor.

The high points outweigh the low through most of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" with particular praise for the wonderful selection of period and traditional music. I give it a B.

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