COMEDY: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (USA, 2000)
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman

The Coen Brothers are at their best when they start with existential darkness or absurdist comedy, and then build in zaniness or whimsy on top of that in small chunks. Barton Fink, for example, has a great story with weighty themes and a pessimist worldview, into which Steve Buscemi's character comes as an interesting and quirky piece of light relief. When they try and start with whimsy and then shove in weighty stuff on top, the film quickly loses its way or becomes self-indulgent, with The Hudsucker Proxy being the best example.
 O Brother, Where Art Thou? is interesting because it falls somewhere between these two camps groups. It has the foundation of a great story, being based on Homer's The Odyssey, and much effort has gone into retelling this story with both humour and pathos. But while you've always got a rough idea of where it's going, the film is full of distracting and increasingly unfunny whimsy which makes the storytelling more chaotic. Because there is such a strong, well-known story at the heart of it, it doesn't ever fall apart, but it remains a strangely uninvolving comedy.
Despite claiming to have never read The Odyssey, the Coens have done a great job in matching all the key events in the story to a modern-day equivalent. The direct parallels are obvious for those of us who know the story, but they still work separated from that within the mechanics of the period setting. Some of the creative decisions are inspired, such as the Cyclops being replaced by a one-eyed conman and Ku Klux Klan member, played with typical gusto by John Goodman. There is also a good joke where Delmar and Everett go looking for a wizard to turn Pete back into a human; they end up infiltrating a Klan meeting, and come across the wrong kind of wizard.
Unusually for a film of this scale, the music of O Brother was composed and recorded before filming. It functions like a Greek chorus, commenting on the trials and tribulations of the characters, articulating what they cannot say, and interacting with the characters like a nameless, shape-shifting protagonist. Acclaimed producer T. Bone Burnett used his extensive knowledge of American folk, bluegrass and jug band music to assemble a soundtrack which evokes its period down to the last detail. Even the production has an old-fashioned tinge to it, as if George Clooney and his colleagues were genuinely singing into 1930s microphones.
The scene which best illustrates the music being integral to the action comes when the trio of criminals comes across the sirens washing their clothes in the lake. Like Odysseus and his crew, they are quite literally lured onto the rocks by the sirens' songs, enticed by the beauty which reminds Everett of his wife and the others of the fact that they've not had for some time. The sirens' song is very much of the period, with its multi-part harmony and soothing, seductive refrain of "go to sleep you little baby." But it also conveys the universal theme of temptation which is writ large both in Homer's work and in the criminals' story.
The other huge plus point of O Brother is the cinematography. The film is shot by the Coens' long-time collaborator Roger Deakins, who received his fourth of nine Oscar nominations thus far for his work. As we have come to expect from both Deakins and the Coens, the camera angles are expertly chosen and the compositions are superb. But beneath the position of the camera and manipulation of natural light, there is another aspect to Deakins' work which deserves to be recognised.
The film shot in the summer of 1999, and upon viewing the rushes the Coens were dissatisfied with the amount of bright colours present. They were looking for a washed-out, almost sepia look, to make the film look like a product of its time. Deakins' solution was to colour correct every shot to de-saturate the bright greens into yellows. Not only does this give the film a more old-fashioned look, it also adds to the mythical feel, with the vast yellow fields nodding towards Jason and the Golden Fleece. The film is significant for being the first to be colour corrected entirely by digital means, narrowly beating Nick Park's Chicken Run (although Chicken Run was released sooner, O Brother finished post-production earlier).
So far O Brother, Where Art Thou? seems to be cutting the mustard, both as a quirky adaptation of The Odyssey and as a film in its own right. But the more the film rolls on, and the more quirky its characters become, the less confident we are that the film is in control of all its wild excursions into the period and moments of artistic license. While Homer's story provides an anchor, and its major events are used to keep the plot moving, there's an odd feeling of the ship going round in circles even as it inches further forward.
The best way to explain what I mean by this is to compare the film to Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man!. Both films are translations of epic texts, with Anderson's three-hour oddity being a loose reworking of Voltaire's Candide. Both stories are based on a male protagonist who goes on a long journey of self-discovery and encounters many strange evils along the way. Most of all, both films are chock full of interesting or unusual scenes which don't necessarily gel into a seamless, well-structured whole.
Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he had "the sense of invention set adrift; of a series of bright ideas wondering why they had all been invited to the same film." There are many great moments and characters in O Brother, which work well in the same self-contained, incidental way that parts of Quentin Tarantino's films do. But despite the knowing thrill of meeting Tommy Johnson or George Nelson (don't call him Babyface), such encounters never become properly integrated into the plot.
The climactic scene of the film, where the trio perform at the political rally, demonstrates this feeling of characters intersecting and uneasily coexisting. The Soggy Bottom Boys perform their surprise hit, 'Man of Constant Sorrow', the reform candidate recognises them as the men who infiltrated the KKK meeting, and in trying to expose them turns the crowd against him and effectively loses the election. As a result of the success that the Soggy Bottom Boys seem destined to have, Penny gives her husband Everett another chance.
This contrived convergence of all the plot strands is problematic enough. But what's even more problematic is that these storylines break apart almost as soon as they have converged. The Soggy Bottom Boys are applauded wildly and seem destined to be stars - but they don't get signed up and we never hear of them again. The three criminals are pardoned by the Senator, but are then arrested again, and are only saved by the flooding of the plain caused by the building of the dam. And as soon as Penny has given her husband a second chance, they have a massive falling-out over her wedding ring and seem back to square one.
This last point also illuminates the character problems in the film. There is the ongoing problem in several of the Coens' films, where we are expected to laugh at people for the simple fact that they are idiots. The son and campaign managers of Pappy O'Daniel are regarded in the same way as the protagonists in Burn After Reading or Raising Arizona: they're all idiots, and their antics apparently become hilarious on account of their stupidity.
The other problem is with Holly Hunter's character, whose demanding wife Penny stands in for Penelope in The Odyssey. But while Penelope is depicted as the model of loyalty and patience, in the film she is demanding and spiteful to the point of being obnoxious. Not only does she not wait for Everett to return, but she divorces him and lies to his children, saying he was hit by a train. Hunter is a talented actress, but you would have thought the Coens would have given her more to work with, given her contribution to their first two films.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a strange, quirky little film which leaves you feeling both entertained and unsatisfied. As a demonstration of how well The Odyssey translates, it works really well, and its period details are immaculate and enthralling. As an entity in and of itself, it falters on its inability to control and combine its various plot strands. On the whole it's enjoyable but not special, and certainly not the Coens' finest hour. 

Rating: 3/5
Verdict: Enjoyable but strangely unsatisfying


  1. Good review. I enjoyed the references to the Odyssey as well, and I also thought this wasn't Hunter's brightest moment. I enjoyed it a bit more for a lot of reasons though. Coen brothers still rock anyhow.

  2. Love this film. I really didn't at first, but after seeing it like 3 more times it just really grew on me.

  3. Thanks for commenting Ryan. Maybe I'll see it again in a couple of years


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