Neil Young’s Film Lounge – O Brother Where Art Thou?

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?

6/10

US 2000
dir. Joel Coen
scr. Joel and Ethan Coen (based on The Odyssey by Homer)
cin. Roger Deakins
stars George Clooney, John Turtutto, Tim Blake Nelson
106 minutes

Like all Coen brothers films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? isnt really about plot, or direction, or character its about creating and sustaining a particular mood, or, as they might put it themselves, a vibe. Here the vibe is comic and manic, to point of cartoonishness. And, like all Coen brothers films, O Brother is endlessly quirky in fact, its nothing but quirks: entertaining and lively, but basically its about nothing as much as its own energy and cleverness.

The more you know about the background of O Brother the more youll get out of it its little more than a collection of references and in-jokes, from the title on down. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the pet project of John L Sullivan, the character played by Joel McCrea in Preston Sturges Sullivans Travels (1941). At the start of that movie, Sullivan is a successful director of lightweight Hollywood farces, but that’s not enough for him. He horrifies studio heads by announcing that he wants to change tack and explore political issues by tackling the novel O Brother, Where Art Thou, a hefty slab of social conscience.

Sullivans Travels doesn’t go into detail about the plot of O Brother, and its possible this movie represents what the Coens think Sullivan would actually have delivered its set in the South during the Depression, and touches on serious political and social issues, but invariably reverts to lightweight farce when push comes to shove. O Brother contains so many nods to Sullivans Travels that its effectively a tribute to Preston Sturges as much as anything else. The films also share many strengths and weaknesses their breakneck, giddy generosity of spirit is engaging enough, but there’s something maddeningly frustrating about the way they skate over the surfaces without ever digging very deep. The technique of their figure-eight improvisations is impressive, but they never actually get us very far.

Clooney is arguably the best thing in O Brother. He plays Ulysses Everett McGill (this is how he’s referred to throughout the film, though most reviewers switch his first two names around) who escapes from a chain-gang along with fellow prisoners Turturro and Nelson. While those two are fairly dim bulbs, Clooney is a verbose motormouth who thinks he can talk his way out of any situation. The trio set off on a wild journey across the south in search of buried loot Clooney had supposedly hidden before his capture by the police, encountering a bizarre array of characters along the way.

The trios journey is loosely based on the adventures of Ulysses in Homers Odyssey, and unless you have some familiarity with that text much of this movie may fly straight over your head. Similarly, how many people will get the joke that Everett McGill is named after the character actor best known for Twin Peaks, though set for greater fame with his supporting role in the upcoming Legend of Bagger Vance. Its one of the infuriating elements of the Coens movies that you often feel youre missing out on half of the jokes, that they’ve devoted most of their energies to showing off to each other and their pals.

But even if you don’t pick up on the references, O Brother is a fun, enjoyable picture, and as technically expert as we’ve come to expect from this team. Its got a nicely sun-blanched, yellowy look, with an entirely convincing re-creation of period detail especially the ever-present music – that never becomes intrusive, lampooning the steamy south in the same way Fargo joshed the chilly north. Compared with most other current releases, its pulled off with impressive flair, humour and ambition, and its just the kind of delicious souffle their fans enjoy.

My problem with the Coens is similar to the problem I have with George Lucas. Though I don’t mind the Star Wars pictures on their own terms, I think they represent a tragic waste of time for the man who made the masterpiece American Graffiti. Similarly, each new Coen brothers film makes me look back at their 1984 debut, Blood Simple and wonder if Ive always been guilty of over-rating it. But every time I watch it, the better it seems. I must have seen Blood Simple a dozen times over the years, but once is enough when it comes to the all of the Coens subsequent films OK, perhaps twice for Big Lebowski or Barton Fink. Blood Simple is a classic first film, in that it feels as though it needed to be made, giving off that irresistible tang of hunger and truth. There are smart-arse elements, but they’re kept in check, put in service of character and plot. While Blood Simple as much of a tribute to the novels of Jim Thompson and David Goodis as O Brother is to Sturges (and Homer), the tribute comes out of the mood and style of the film, not just trimmings and cheap details. The Coens films always have at least one evil or sinister character in O Brother its a satanic cop in weird dark glasses but compared with Dan Hedayas sweat-drenched Julian Marty in Blood Simple, they’re just cardboard, cartoon bogeymen.

Clooneys performance isn’t in the same league as Hedayas or, come to that, as John Goodmans freakishly powerful turn in Barton Fink but, like them, and Jeff Bridges in Lebowski, its his immersion in character that gives the movie what substance it has. Hes a kind of Clark Gable on speed, constantly obsessing over his hair and devoted to a particular brand of pomade, Dapper Dan: the scene in which he’s offered a rival brand, Fop, is a real comic highlight. Theres another good scene where the three escapees record a jazzy, bluesy single in a remote radio station, and Clooney brings such brio and verve to the recording (he is a relative of Rosemary Clooney, of course) you aren’t in the least surprised when the disc, in one of the films innumerable sub-plots, becomes a surprise smash hit.

Though those subplots are brought together fairly neatly at the end, O Brother doesn’t really cohere into anything other than a series of sparkling moments. Theres a breathtaking, throwaway visual gag involving a car and a cow (hopefully computer-generated) that had the audience gasping with outraged delight when I saw the movie, and the Coens pull off a string of visual coups that culminate in a startling flood. Goodman pops up as a cyclops figure, and though he’s underused he does have one great scene where he casually pulls a large branch off a tree and brains Nelson while Clooney chatters on regardless.

But while these high spots help pass the time entertainingly enough, theirs an undeniable so what air over the whole production. In one direct nod to Sullivans Travels, there’s a scene where Clooney and Nelson are hiding out in a movie house when the local chain gang are marched in for their weekly outing. The film on the screen slows down and stops until all the prisoners have found their seats, then haltingly starts up again. Its a nice enough scene, but it pales into nothingness compared with the equivalent moment in Sturges picture: the chain-gangs picture show takes place in a black church at the edge of a swamp, and its loaded with an overwhelmingly evocative air of ritual and magic. We know the Coens are capable of exactly that kind of economic, sublime poetry which makes it such a pity they turned their backs on it so long ago.

by Neil Young