At their worst, the Coen Brothers can come across as dilettantish, with an air of superiority to their characters (who often seem little more than caricatures), and it would surely be possible to argue that they’ve shown this hand in O Brother. They’ve certainly marshalled a whole host of period references to the 1930s into a comic book confection to little lasting effect. And yet I have a warmth of feeling towards this film that derives primarily from the music, not to mention the gorgeous widescreen Cinemascope photography and the easy affability of George Clooney as a lead actor. I don’t think any of this makes the film less shallow, but it does make me more fondly disposed towards it.
Certainly its basis on the Odyssey doesn’t add any depth. George Clooney plays Ulysses Everett McGill, a convict on a chain gang, who, with help from two fellow convicts (played by John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson), is trying to get home to his wife Penny (Holly Hunter). There are many other references to famous characters and scenes from Homer’s story which show up in passing (the Lotus Eaters, the Sirens, the Cyclops, at least one suitor, and a deus ex machina of sorts), but it’s a sort of Cliff’s Notes transposition that provides a bit of passing interest along the way for these three escapees from a chain gang. The rest of the characters and situations are scavenged equally superficially from popular culture: a blues musician who’s sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads (Tommy Johnson, though the detail of the hellhound that the ‘devil’/sheriff has with him seems more Robert Johnson); George ‘Babyface’ Nelson, the bank robber; a Ku Klux Klan rally; some corrupt good ol’ boy politicians; some soulful black men; a little recording shack out in the middle of nowhere; and so on.
Moreover, much of the feeling of the film, not to mention its title, is derived from Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), wherein a Hollywood producer with a background in knockabout humour wants to make a social problem movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, dealing with the plight of ordinary folk in the Great Depression. Perhaps the idea at the core of the Coen brothers’ film is that this is the film that character would have turned out, and if so, it’s appropriately shallow. There were certainly many inequalities and brutalities in this period, but it’s all so much comedy window-dressing for the Coens; this is a cartoon and, at times, a corny one at that (the escaped convicts even steal a pie from a windowsill) and needs to be taken in that vein.
Its greatest pleasures then are in the luminous widescreen cinematography by Roger Deakins, tweaked in post-production into a subtly sepia-tinted antique hue, and above all, the wonderful soundtrack. Perhaps the soundtrack album, or the documentary concert film Down from the Mountain (2000) derived from it, are really the best way to experience this, but there’s certainly a generous use of music and performance in the Coens’ film. In fact, it all builds to a big show, with Ulysses’ motley band (under the sobriquet the Soggy Bottom Boys) a dab hand at old time melodies it turns out.
If I’ve almost talked myself out of liking the film, I can’t ultimately deny that I enjoy its broad comic touches and above all the images and music, and on that level, it’s successful.
Director Joel Coen; Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (based on the epic poem Ὀδύσσεια The Odyssey by Homer Ὅμηρος); Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Friday 4 May 2001 (and on TV at holiday apartment, Rovinj, Saturday 1 June 2013).