Directed by: Joel Coen || Produced by: Ethan Coen
Screenplay by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen || Starring: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Charles Durning, Michael Badalucco, John Goodman, Holly Hunter
Music by: T-Bone Burnett || Cinematography: Roger Deakins || Editing by: Roderick Jaynes, Tricia Cooke || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 108 minutes
Much has been made of the Coen Brother’s recognizable sense of humor. They dabble in the absurd and the crudely violent, poking fun at blood ‘n gore that is often used for cheap thrills by other filmmakers. Their films find odd pleasure in the wacky, the weird, and the ridiculous elements so commonly found in lesser movies. Like other great movie-makers of past and present, the Coen Bros’ have made their career on taking B-movie concepts and filming them with A-movie skill.
That’s what we have here in O Brother, Where Art Thou? a southern American, Depression-era comedy ballad that proves its worth with goofy, borderline caricature acting and over-the-top comedy set-pieces. That the Coen Brothers have managed to make such an effective film with such otherwise lowbrow elements is quite a feat.
To delve a little deeper, O Brother is a loose adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, featuring an episodic journey by a main character who tries to win his wife back from competing suitors, battles John Goodman’s Klu Klux Klansman (the one-eyed cyclops), and is tempted by seductive females (the Sirens). Looking at the film in this context reveals depth in the narrative, and helps legitimize what at first glance seems like an oddball comedy with A-list writer-directors. The movie’s vibrant, intelligent symbolism extends throughout the story, and its subtle to not-so-subtle literary allusions transform the film into an engaging sociopolitical adventure that has as much to say about society as it does about goofy individuals doing dumb things.
As an effective comedy in and of itself, the movie is hilarious. Great lines like, “You two are just dumber than a bag of hammers!” and, “We thought you was a toad…” and many laugh-at-loud set-pieces make this adventure through Depression-era Mississippi a fun one. The situations can at times feel disjointed and random, in keeping with the movie’s connection to its literary foundation, but for the most part, everything comes together in the film’s satisfying and over-the-top climax.
I would be negligible to discuss this film without mentioning its musical component. O Brother features a wide variety of folk tunes, Gospel music, and bluegrass songs that add plenty of audio flavor to the adventure. It’s rare that a Western film uses music as a critical component of its storytelling technique (which is one of the reasons why Bollywood movies often feel so refreshing and different), with most Western films either relegating their soundtracks to background roles or complete afterthoughts. That’s not the case with O Brother. Here, the songs are some of the biggest stars of the show, and fans of the film have widely and rightly recognized the soundtrack as one of the main selling points of the movie.
The one thing that always bothered me about O Brother is its characters. While they are undeniably likable and more than serviceable to the movie’s plot, their cartoony nature and silly dialogue (excluding their great one-liners) wear on you after a while. They’re just not as realistic as I’d like them to be, either acting too stupid or too silly for me to take them seriously much of the time. I understand that a big focus of the Coen Brothers’ films is dumb people doing dumb things, but there becomes a breaking point where too much excess becomes too much.
Another thing I’d dock the film for concerns its color-correction. I loved Roger Deakins’ work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), but here, the sepia-tinted picture doesn’t appeal to me. I would have been fine with it used in a few scenes here and there, such as in a dream sequence or a psychedelic, out-of-body experience, but in the same manner as the characters’ cartoony excess, Deakins goes overboard with the colorization. It’s too on-the-nose.
At the end of the day, it’s an impressive feat that O Brother remains such an enjoyable film despite its over-the-top nature. I wouldn’t recommend it as anybody’s first Coen Brothers movie, but it has enough charm and wit to save it from its few missteps. It’s also commendable that such a silly mannered project has such an intelligent script despite its simplistic characterizations, digesting literary concepts from Greek mythology and reshaping them into creative modern counterparts. O Brother, Where Art Thou is one of the few films that outwardly refuses to take itself seriously and somehow manages to be taken seriously as an intelligent period-comedy, a tale that is far deeper than its outward appearance would let on.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: O Brother, Where Art Thou(?) is a startlingly deep, multi-layered picture that melds The Odyssey with rich American history, southern tradition, and style. It also boasts one of the best film soundtracks of the past couple decades, that’s for sure. They just can’t keep the records on the shelves!
— However… the never-ending cartoonishness of the characters and their dialogue reaches a breaking point by the end. I’m not a fan of the color-correction process.
? Oh, George… not the livestock.