blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000, Joel Coen)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a frustrating, adequate success. There’s some excellent filmmaking and even better performances. Still, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey is at times too stringent and, at other times, narrative spaghetti on the wall. The falling pieces are co-stars John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson, who spend the first half of the movie establishing themselves and seemingly firmly affixed, only to drop.

The film’s got three creative impulses: an Odyssey adaptation set in the Deep South during the Great Depression (and seemingly the most whitewashed Southern movie since Gone With the Wind), Turturro, Nelson, and George Clooney doing a prison break, and then Clooney trying to reunite with ex-wife Holly Hunter. The third impulse ties into the first, with the Brothers Coen entirely sacrificing the prison break movie to enable the romantic comedy.

Sort of. It’s all intertwined, with various details relying on previous details from another impulse—not to mention the entire “old-timey” musical aspect. The musical aspect is the foundation; everything else, except maybe the Clooney and Hunter stuff, is built off the musical. And it works. The only real disappointment is the finish, a series of deus ex machinas punctuated with a reminder of where the third act went wrong, then a nostalgic pull on the heartstrings for the good old days of the 1937 South, when they beat racism for good.

There’s also the whole other aspect of the film’s title being an empty reference to Sullivan’s Travels only very much only to signal the film literate in the audience.


Besides all that mess, O Brother’s a delight. Clooney, Turturro, and Nelson all give fantastic performances. Knowing the Coen Brothers have it all storyboarded and there aren’t rewrites makes it all the more impressive as the actors start flexing their physical performances. Lots of busybodies and silly expressions, often in the background, and it’s swell.

Clooney’s the suave, fast-talker of the group—when Hunter swoons at his nonsense, it’s more than believable as the audience has been swooning to it for over an hour at that point—Turturro’s the dim one, Nelson’s the dimmer one. And immediately lovable. Turturro’s initially a little potentially dangerous, while Nelson’s always huggable if they weren’t covered in mud and probably manure.

Their adventures take them through various Odyssey-related set pieces, though anyone substituting O Brother for CliffNotes would fail the test. Even without the Cyclops (John Goodman) ending up at a Klan rally, realized as a musical number out of Fantasia. They meet several interesting characters: Goodman, guitarist and the boys’ Black friend, Chris Thomas King (who sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar better, a perhaps too gentle reference to Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues; King plays “Tommy Johnson”), Michael Badalucco as “Don’t Call Me Babyface” Nelson, and state governor Charles Durning.

Oh, yeah. Durning’s failing re-election campaign against reformer Wayne Duvall is the major subplot, which also wasn’t in The Odyssey; though it’s been a while. And Durning’s such an abject delight it doesn’t matter. The Coen Brothers use that subplot to make the second half work.

The best performance ends up being Clooney, though, for a while, he’s got serious competition from Turturro (before Turturro disappears and they have Clooney turn up the charm). Clooney seems like he’s got one peak through the first act but then reveals he can take the performance higher, which is fun to watch. The film appropriately appreciates and revels in its leads’ performances.

Hunter and her new beau, Ray McKinnon, are just fine. Hunter’s stunt casting in a thin part; she’s just got to be exasperated and charmed by Clooney, which is also the audience, while McKinnon’s just got to be a capable dweeb. Though based on third-act revelations, there’s a whole other potential layer to McKinnon the film pretends isn’t there.

Racism, it’s the racism layer.


Incredible photography from Roger Deakins (though the digital color grading is really obvious if you know it’s there) and fantastic production and costume design, courtesy Dennis Gassner and Mary Zophres, respectively. And the music’s great.

O Brother is an excellent time, with some major and minor asterisks.

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