"O, Brother" is right.
You can almost see the frozen smiles on the faces of the money men on the receiving end of that stellar pitch. Most people would have been bounced out of the office of any industry insider with a half-ounce of interest in keeping his career intact. Since it came from Joel and Ethan Coen, though, the critical darlings who have delivered such time-tested and award-winning crowd-pleasers as Raising Arizona and Fargo, we can only assume they just kept smiling, wishing they knew what the hell Sullivan's Travels was and praying that America's premier filmmaking team was just kidding.
The film is done now, but it's still hard to tell whether or not they were kidding. Watching what will probably go on the books as the Coen's weirdest film, it's tempting to think the whole project was some kind of perverse dare.
It's not bad, of course. The Coens couldn't make a bad film blindfolded. It's just very, very odd. George Clooney, the only element here that smells remotely like box-office, plays Everette Ulysses McGill, a pomaded "fugitive from a chain-gang" (one of the many movies the Coen's riff on), who leads two of his colleagues (Tim Blake Nelson and Coen regular John Turturro) on a wild goose chase to retrieve some loot allegedly stashed in a Mississippi holler before the whole valley gets flooded by a massive New Deal public works project. He also wants to stop his fecund and wayward wife from marrying the lackluster lackey of a laconic Huey Long-like political boss, who pretends to be a reformer and travels around with a midget making waves for the local fat cats.
What does all this have to do with Homer's Greek poem about the vexed, hexed homecoming of the wily strategian who helped topple Troy? Not much, ultimately. Though O Brother, Where Art Thou follows the meandering, episodic structure of its Hellenic prototype, it is actually more a sprawling historical fantasy, one in which history, ironically, gets the upper hand. The strongest sequences are those in which the misguided trio stumble into the wake of "real" events and "genuine" people -- meeting up with such folk heroes as clearly bipolar bankrobber George Nelson (call him "babyface" at your peril) and a thinly disguised Robert Johnson, the Faustian fretter who is said to have sold his soul to master the guitar -- and facing the climactic deluge.
The film is less successful when it comes to the crossroads of mythology. Homeric vignettes such as the travelers falling under the fatal spell of the Sirens (here, three robust and rustic nymphs warbling in a river) and their encounter with the murderous Cyclops (in this incarnation, John Goodman's brutish one-eyed bandit posing as a Bible salesman), which should provide an opportunity for the kind of darkly slapstick set pieces the Coens usually thrive on, feel flat and forced. Clooney's beetle-browed wanderer easily gets lost on his way between magic realism and screwball farce, and Goodman, a long-standing Coen alum, seems more outraged at having to play the heavy to the lead that probably should have been his in the first place than anything.
But however often O Brother loses the tangled trail it tries to follow, there are plenty of scenic overlooks and points of interest along the way. It never musters the dramatic momentum of an Arizona or Miller's Crossing, or the easy offhand charm of Hudsucker Proxy or Big Lebowski, but the Coens still find time to play to their strong suits. Hardcore regionalists, the brothers capture the depressed Deep South with a combination of sharp cynicism and melancholy nostalgia.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has served the team so well in past films, practically paints this one onto the screen with an utterly unique palette of lustrous earth tones and dappled bronze and gold. Some of the standing company, especially Turturro, turn in terrific perfomances; and the film is full of the little flourishes, delectable details of character and place, that make every one of the duo's movies worth watching again and again. Maybe Joel and Ethan were crazy to make such a schizoid picture. But for their fans, you'd have to be crazy to miss it.
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