Joel and Ethan Coen are the movie director equivalents of chameleons. They do a little bit of everything from a horrifically violent, dark crime thriller like No Country for Old Men to genuinely funny (and still horrifically dark) comedies like Burn After Reading with all sorts of classics and near-classics among their filmography from Fargo to Big Lebowski, Blood Simple to Raising Arizona. But how about a story based (even loosely) off of one of literature's greatest works? A daunting task for sure. That's 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou?
It's 1937 in the deep South and three convicts, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), have managed a daring escape from their chain gang. Their reasoning? Everett told his fellow prisoners that he hid away a huge treasure from the robbery that ultimately landed him on the chain gang. He's only got a few days before the treasure's location is washed away, a valley being turned into a lake as part of a hydroelectric project. Chained together at their ankles, the fugitive trio is working against the clock, the road ahead of them full of obstacles both external and internal amidst a gubernatorial race as well. All sorts of people stand in their way, both those hoping to help them and those trying to stop them and in some cases, stop them. Time is running out, and Everett has a secret up his sleeve.
There just aren't too many directors out there with more visual and storytelling style than the Coen brothers. How many directors could pull off a transition from a poem from classic Greek mythology to a similar story in pre-WWII deep south with a heavy reliance on folk music, quirky characters and an episodic story that could be called downright random? Not too many as I sit here writing this review. The Coen Brothers on the other hand make it look pretty effortless. It is a fun movie from beginning to end, the generally random shifts in tone, humor and laughs moving things along at a brisk pace in a 107-minute movie. In other hands, things might have gotten bogged down but that certainly isn't the case here. A very solid, entertaining movie.
Through all the zaniness in the deep south, we follow our intrepid trio on their journey. The chemistry is pretty perfect, Clooney, Turturro and Nelson showing off that effortless chemistry that simply works. The Coen brothers also wrote the script, their quirky humor showing through in the three convicts. Clooney as the vain, motor-mouthed, ultra-confident Everett, the unofficial leader of the group. His preference for Dapper Dan hair pomade consistently gets him and his traveling companions in trouble, his insistence on looking his best (he wears a hair net to sleep to not muss his hair) providing some great moments. He uses $20 words when a $1 word would cut it. His long rambling monologues are pretty great, a man trying to show others how smart he is. Turturro as Pete is a bit of a wild card, prone to frustrating outbursts as their plan unravels. The best characterization goes to Blake Nelson as Delmar, the sweet, thoughtful and generally naive convict who simply has a nice, positive outlook on life.
These three out-there escaped convicts are searching for Everett's buried treasure from an armored car robbery. But naturally, what do they end up doing? They become renowned folk singers, Everett thinking quick on his feet to name themselves The Soggy Bottom Boys (based on The Foggy Mountain Boys, their hit song a cover of Man of Constant Sorrow. Whether it's the Soggy boys singing or T-Bone Burnett's folk-heavy soundtrack, the music is a hugely successful, essential ingredient to the movie's success. The music is always there, always catchy, driving the story forward, the score transitioning scene-to-scene. It's the music and style that works, the Coens using digital color correction to give 'Brother' an almost washed out, sepia look to the story. All those little things that add up to a really enjoyable movie.
We've got three crazy characters to follow across the south, but following Homer's footsteps in The Odyssey, our trio meets some odd characters on the road. Part of the fun is figuring out who's who in relation to the poem. We've got a loving-life bible salesman (John Goodman), a gubernatorial candidate (Charles Durning) seeking reelection, his hot-chasing opponent (Wayne Duvall), Everett's frustrated wife (Holly Hunter) and her new beau (Ray McKinnon), infamous gangster Baby Face Nelson (Michael Badalucco), down on his luck musician Tommy (musician Chris Thomas King), a blind radio programmer (Stephen Root), the sheriff (Daniel von Bargen) in hot pursuit, the blind seer (Lee Weaver) who warns the convicts of what awaits them and lastly, Pete's cousin (Frank Collison) who's curious why Pete just showed up...in chains.
When the Coens decide to do something, they commit to doing it right. From the set design and style to the script and the characters, their movies create these little worlds that are folksy and real and authentic. A very enjoyable movie with some great parts and a lot of laughs. An easy one to recommend.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000): ***/****