O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a modernization of an ancient epic series that featured heroes and the women they love, grand adventurous mishaps, temptation, and treasure. No, I’m not talking about Homer’s “The Odyssey,” which does little more than throw its symbols at the Coen Brothers’ wall (some stick and some don’t). I’m talking about the Hope and Crosby Road to … pictures, among which O Brother, Where Art Thou? would be among dear, dull old friends.
Those old pictures were never great. And you know what they say—yesterday’s disposable gags at then-timely dramas are today’s disposable gags at then-timely dramas. Maybe only I say that.
The Hope and Crosby road comedies just had this spunk you couldn’t bathe off, this unhinged charm that made searching for adventure feel like a crowded dinner date, one that only occasionally devolved into a treasure-hunt for paychecks on the Paramount backlot. Invariably, there was some trouble with natives, some soft-shoe, an exotified Dorothy Lamour, and a whole lot of winking. The wife at the end of the road in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is too bona fide to appear in fishnet stockings, but the troubles are basically all the same, that is, cobbled together with the same smiles. And sorrows.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? isn’t an enduring testament to the road picture. It doesn’t enhance your memory of them. Quite oppositely, it’s the best of them, and no better than them. I'm trying to say that I love watching this movie without ever feeling like I have much of a reason.
Ulysses Everett McGill could not be played by any ol’ body. There’s no dapper grin that can turn as evenly into a con man’s sneer as George Clooney’s (or at least, as I’ve said before and will again, there hasn’t been since Cary Grant died). He’s the de facto or otherwise extenuatin’ leader of this ere’ band of misdemeanorin’ misfits, talks in that exact way—intelligent enough to fake it—and always seems to have a scheme but never a plan. He’s got the chain gangers on either side of him tagging along on a quest for treasure. A blind railroad car operator tells them that it waits out in Mississippi somewhere. Clearly, he’s the Oracle—this is as close the Coens get to Homer, and I’ll assume from here on that the names alone are cue enough, without me mentioning that ol’ parchment storyteller again, insultin’ his intelligence, yours, mine, and, as we might so generously affirm, the Coens’. This kind of wordin’ isn’t as charming in print as when it's coming out of Clooney’s mouth, I'll admit, but this movie will test that theory for 108 minutes; I figured you should get at least a taste before that.
Ulysses’ companions are called Pete and Delmar. They're completely disposable in the film and absolutely indispensable to us. John Turturro plays Pete as being just smart enough to complain, asking why Ulysses should be the leader but never bringing it up again after he’s deflected by something about abstract thought. Tim Blake Nelson plays Delmar like the vacancy sign is always lit on his face. They’re a trio but not equilateral. Clooney is the lead singer, no doubt.
The plot is a string of sketches that the Coen brothers arrange like settlements popping up haphazardly along a river. If this movie was made today, it would probably be in the short story format of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Each story in O Brother, Where Art Thou? works separately on its own little patch of ground but they barely serve an overarching journey. The larger structure is constantly moving downstream to keep up with the Homer metaphor—the result is a bit like a lot of unfinished houses, fit for nobody that isn't prepared to laugh at them. There are Siren bathers singing gospel, an imposing Bible salesman with one eye (John Goodman, grown to perfection), a KKK meeting, and a jam session on a radio mic. You’ll remember each place from O Brother, Where Art Thou? even if you can’t quite recall where it was all headed.
The Coen Brothers have one of the slickest wits in modern drama, I would call Fargo the movie they brag about to the last man standing at the bar. If he says, “Haven’t you guys ever made anything else?” they might mention O Brother, Where Art Thou? last, as the one they thought was funny but no one quite got. Critics, while not known for their excessiveness in the ways of mirth and folly, sort of let this one slide. There’s no open hatred, just a kind of airy forgiveness, as though the Rotten Tomatoes consensus reads, “Better luck next time.”
But mostly lacking a narrative serves Ulysses and his compatriots in consecrating a style, if not a story. The details peppering the backwoods roads and streams and the colorful bestiary of characters make O Brother, Where Art Thou? come alive, even if it's starved for a point. The image of paunchy Goodman laying in the sun, extricating his pitch for the good book while sucking on chicken bones, or the white-gowned sirens singing “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” or the squabbling of the brusque gubernatorial incumbent Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel (Charles Durning) with his shrewish opponent (Wayne Duvall), impart the film with unmistakable charm. How long will it last for you? It may be old-timey, but it’s not better than anything that is.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
|Ulysses Everett McGill||George Clooney|
|Pete Hogwallop||John Turturro|
|Delmar O'Donnell||Tim Blake Nelson|
|Tommy Johnson||Chris Thomas King|
|Daniel "Big Dan" Teague||John Goodman|
|Penny Wharvey-McGill||Holly Hunter|
|Menelaus "Pappy" O'Daniel||Charles Durning|