The thing that tickles me the most about the Coen Brothers’ films is that they exist in worlds unto their own, slightly to the left of even movie “reality.” If there is a realm that most movies occupy, one slightly removed from our real world, then the Coens have put that same distance between that movie realm and the off-kilter domain they’ve staked out for themselves. They live somewhere between Kansas and Oz… and they’re well aware of the fact that their space owes its existence completely to our shared fantasy of a place called The Movies.
So what the Coens did with O Brother, Where Art Thou? is this: They transported Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey to this filmic otherworld of theirs, turning what is perhaps the original on-the-road story into a Depression-era fantasia that wants more for you to recognize the clever fun they’re having with filmmaking conventions of the 1930s than whether you know the least thing about ancient literature. I’m sure either Coen would be much more delighted to know that we get the joke of the title (hint: see Preston Sturges’s 1941 satire Sullivan’s Travels) than whether we know who Polyphemus is.
The picaresque travels of fast- and fancy-talking Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney: The Perfect Storm, Three Kings), sweet but dumb Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson: The Thin Red Line, Donnie Brasco), and perpetually suspicious Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro: Cradle Will Rock) are as much Capra screwball as they are Homeric… perhaps even more so. It’s July 1937, and the three small-time felons have just busted off a Mississippi chain gang. Their quest for the stolen treasure Everett says he buried before his arrest is punctuated by a blind seer telling their fortune, burning barns, stolen livestock, gettin’ baptized in a lake, KKK meetings, gophers cooked over campfires, and and Dapper Dan hair pomade. The spectral Sheriff Cooley (Daniel von Bargen: Disney’s The Kid, Shaft) and his bloodhounds dog them, the giggly and giddy bank robber George “Babyface” Nelson (Michael Badalucco: You’ve Got Mail, Paulie) takes them along on a heist, three beautiful washerwomen lead them momentarily astray, and loudmouth itinerant preacher Big Dan Teague (John Goodman: The Emperor’s New Groove, Coyote Ugly) gives them an up-close-and-personal demonstration of his evangelistic methods.
Homer is there (hint: Big Dan, with his eyepatch, is an avatar for Polyphemus the cyclops), but no CliffsNotes are required. Instead, just revel in how the Coens — they both wrote the screenplay; Joel directed with an uncredited assist from Ethan — play with the mythic stories of the more recent past: chain gangs; the charity of ordinary, poor people that characterized the Depression; the notion that anyone with a song in him could be a music star: Everett and Co., as a scam, belt out a tune for a radio station owner that becomes, unbeknownst to them, a hit record.
An unpaved-road movie that leads our heroes through golden fields and ethereal swamps, O Brother is a handsome film, joyfully feting the movie fantasies of a bygone era. (The soundtrack, replete with rootsy, bluegrassy folk tunes and featuring the heavenly voice of Alison Krauss and the mournful crooning of Dan Tyminski, is just about perfect.) But O Brother soars to dryly comedic brilliance thanks to its three leads. Nelson is a wonder as the wide-eyed Delmar, so quick to believe the most impossible of possibilities. Turturro is subdued rage personified, carrying the angry weight of the world on him. But it’s Clooney who is the real revelation here. Spitting out Everett’s rapid-fire dialogue and looking for all the world like Clark Gable, Clooney has finally Got It: He has shucked that “Gee, ain’t I a cute little boy” schtick and settled into his skin, refusing to take himself too seriously, as he has been prone to before. In what may be the most affected role he has even done — Everett is a showy character even in his highly stylized world — Clooney is at his most relaxed and most confident.
As Everett himself would say, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is goddamn bona fide. This is one of the best films of the year, constantly surprising, ticklishly unpredictable, and thoroughly original.