O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Directed by Joel Coen
Starring: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Charles Durning, John Goodman, Chris Thomas King, Michael Badalucco, Holly Hunter.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and language.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
January 3, 2001

There's going to be a restored version of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey coming out this Fall, so starting the year 2001 with a full review of that film would be jumping the gun. That review can wait, but it is a nice coincidence that we have another odyssey to start out the year. Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, The Big Lebowski) have made their own version of Homer's Odyssey, using escaped convicts, and setting the story in Mississippi during the Great Depression.

Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) has convinced his partners on the chain gang, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), to escape and find a $1.2 million fortune that Ulysses hid before being incarcerated. They encounter several strange characters on their journey, many of whom seem to warn them about pursuing their mission.

Some of the events and characters are based on the original epic poem, while others are based on real-life figures. There's John Goodman as one-eyed bible salesman Big Dan Teague, who is obviously meant to represent the Cyclops. Then you have Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), who they pick up at a crossroads after he sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar. Blues enthusiasts will instantly recognize him as legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, who allegedly did the same thing. Of course, you have to have a Penelope-like estranged wife, which is filled with a brief appearance by Holly Hunter as Penny, who divorced herself from Ulysses while he was in jail, and plans to marry another man to support their six daughters.

The Coen Brothers' capacity for comic absurdity is put to the test in this film, as Homer's great adventure and commentary on hubris is turned into a screwball farce. Clooney fits the role well, playing an over-educated rascal who is obsessed with keeping his hair in perfect shape. His partners are also beautifully played by Turturro as the loose cannon and Nelson as the dim bulb. However, within the context of the film, they are little more than these one-dimensional characters on a strange journey. Their absurdity becomes almost overbearing, and the film nearly falls apart.

Luckily, there are moments of inspiration that keep it going. The Coens had a lot of really good ideas for their version of The Odyssey, and coming up with fresh material to parody an ancient poem is no easy task. It's just a little frustrating when the film starts to wind down, and you realize that given the creative forces and talent on hand, O Brother, Where Art Thou? could have been a much better film.

One welcome development of this film's release is the belated acknowledgement of the brilliance of The Big Lebowski, which was underrated when released in 1998. It became a cult classic, instead of a mainstream success like Fargo. The Coens are some of the best filmmakers in America, but it takes a relatively sub-par effort to truly appreciate them.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) -- VHS
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) -- DVD
The Odyssey, an epic poem by Homer -- Hardcover
The Odyssey, an epic poem by Homer -- Paperback
O Brother, Where Art Thou?: Soundtrack -- Compact Disc

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Review © 2001 Matt Heffernan