The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001

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O Brother is classic Coen brothers

by Gary Susman

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Ethan and Joel Coen, based on the Odyssey by Homer. With George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Chris Thomas King, John Goodman, Michael Badalucco, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning, Stephen Root, and Wayne Duvall. A Touchstone Pictures release.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the latest from the Coen brothers, is supposedly based on Homer's Odyssey. Yeah, right, just like the Coens' Fargo was supposedly based on a true story. This is an epic dreamed up and set in Coenland, where familiar film genres get twisted into balloon animals, and where anything might happen to the characters because, hey, why not?

The truth behind the myth

New York -- It's pretty hard to get a straight answer out of the Coen brothers. Not just because they come off with the same deadpan, tongue-in-cheek attitude displayed in their movies, from Blood Simple and Raising Arizona to Fargo and their latest, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but also because they famously think with one mind. Joel is credited with directing, Ethan with producing, and both with writing, but both actually do all three jobs together. In conversation, as behind the camera, they complete each other's thoughts.

Addressing the claim at the beginning of O Brother that the film is based on the Odyssey, Joel admits, "We didn't really start with Homer. We started with the setting and the situation of prisoners escaping from a chain gang. Homer suggested himself later when we realized the movie was essentially about trying to go home." Adds Ethan, "We'd heard about the Odyssey. We'd never actually read it." Says Joel, "We read the Classic Comics version. The Wizard of Oz is also a story about trying to go home. We were thinking about that as much as the Odyssey."

The film is about three escaped convicts, played by George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, in the Depression-era South. They meet a succession of bizarre, possibly supernatural characters, many of whom seem as cartoonish as the Minnesota locals in Fargo. The Coens insist that no one should take these characters seriously enough to take offense. "I think it's kind of silly because it's obviously not realism, not the real South," says Ethan. "First of all, it's a period piece. It's almost a fairy tale. Some people are always going to make it personal and are looking to be offended." Says Joel, "There certainly is a history of tale-telling in the South, larger-than-life things."

Avoiding realism is one reason most Coen films are set in the past, Joel says: "As Ethan was saying, none of our movies is an exercise in naturalism. It's our way of removing the movies from reality, of saying, `Once upon a time.' " Adds Ethan, "Setting it in contemporary reality, it's too close." Says Joel, "Even Fargo, which is set in a place we grew up in -- which is, on the surface, contemporary and naturalistic -- is actually no more naturalistic than anything else we've done. The naturalism in that is just another way of stylizing the movie."

The two Southerners among the leads didn't find their roles too caricatured. Says Nelson, who's written and directed his own Southern-gothic movie (1997's Eye of God), "Having grown up in Oklahoma, I would say that what Joel and Ethan have done is, within a comic vernacular, entirely accurate, as accurate as Flannery O'Connor or Faulkner. I'm not saying it's a reflection of reality, but it is an accurate comic reflection, just as O'Connor is an accurate grotesque reflection. If my portrayal of Delmar is accurate or realistic, again through a comic prism, the credit at first belongs to Joel and Ethan, because they wrote the character that way. It's even written in dialect."

Asked if he knows Southerners who resemble his character, Everett, Clooney says, "Know `em? I'm related to `em. I grew up in a little town in Kentucky, 1500 people. I thought this script was great, but it was really Southern. I had tried to stay away from that. So I sent a tape to my Uncle Jack, who's a tobacco farmer in Danville, Kentucky, with the script, and I said, `Read all of my lines into the tape recorder. I'll get you a credit in the movie.' He sent me the tape, and it goes [Clooney assumes Everett's twang], `George, we took a look at your script here, and I don't think folks talk quite like this back here, but we can give her a go.' And I just went, `Ahhh, yes.' I just did my Uncle Jack through the whole film."

The characters in O Brother certainly endure a Homeric series of ordeals. Turturro, who's acted in four Coen films, says even he is sometimes surprised by the abuse the brothers inflict upon their characters: "My mother goes, `Why do they do these things to you all the time? Why do they put you through these horrible things?' I think because they're so grounded, they can allow their imaginations to go off in these flights of fancy."

Clooney seems less sanguine. He says that when the Coens cast him as Everett, "they said, `This guy is, like, one of the dumbest guys you'll ever meet, and we thought you'd be perfect.' " He adds: "They're also writing a script called Hail, Caesar, where they said, `He's a real jackass `30s movie star who everybody hates, and two extras take him hostage, and we thought you'd be perfect for it.' I'm a little worried. They had another film where I'd play an insurance salesman who gets beaten to death with a shovel. They've got it in for me."

Preston Sturges fans will recognize the title as the serious movie about country folk surviving the Depression that Joel McCrea wanted to make in Sullivan's Travels. His Sullivan was trying to leave behind his trademark silly, anarchic comedies like Ants in Your Pants of 1939. That would have been an equally apt title for the Coens' movie; their O Brother is indeed about Depression-era country folk, but it's no somber James Agee/Walker Evans study. Despite its goofy, comic tone, it's also not terribly Sturges-like, since those movies, for all their chaos, depended on a rigorous logic that the shaggy-dog Coens have eschewed in virtually every movie except Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing. Like so much else in their films, the title is just a film-geek in-joke, something the Coens did simply because they could.

Just to keep the conceit going, there are a handful of references to the Odyssey, but we're not exactly talking James Joyce here. George Clooney stars as a Mississippi convict with the unlikely name (for a Southerner) of Ulysses McGill, though everyone calls him by his middle name, Everett. (Is naming a character "Everett McGill" another in-joke, an homage to the actor who played Big Ed on Twin Peaks? Does it matter?) Everett escapes from the chain gang with two other prisoners, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson). Everett leads the others in an ostensible quest for a robbery stash he buried, but actually in search of his estranged wife (Holly Hunter), who is called (of course) Penny. Along the way, the escapees meet a blind prophet (who says, "You will find a fortune, but not the fortune you seek"), a trio of sirens who seem to have a Circe-like ability to turn men into beasts, a Cyclops (a one-eyed Bible salesman right out of Flannery O'Connor's story "Good Country People," played with great relish by John Goodman), and some unusual cows.

They also meet some figures from local period folklore: Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), who, like distant cousin Robert Johnson, is said to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in return for blues-guitar virtuosity; fervent bank robber George "Baby Face" Nelson (Michael Badalucco), not really a Southerner, but who cares; and Governor Pappy O (Charles Durning), an apparent cross between Huey Long and Jimmie Davis, the Louisiana governor who composed "You Are My Sunshine."

Music is everywhere in O Brother, just like the otherworldly signs and wonders that everyone takes for granted in this vividly imagined patch of O'Connor/Faulkner country. The Coens and their music coordinator, roots guru T-Bone Burnett, fill each scene with excellent bluegrass, blues, and country songs of the era, expertly re-created. Most of the characters turn out to be gifted singers, and the musical prowess of Everett, Pete, Delmar, and Tommy's impromptu band (called the Soggy Bottom Boys) gets them out of more than one scrape. The music almost seems the one aspect of the story the Coens take seriously, until you see the four Soggy Bottom Boys, in fake beards that make ZZ Top look clean-shaven, doing a hillbilly dance so corny it would be laughed off Hee-Haw.

The Coens have assembled a game cast for this silliness. In terms of masculine charm and ease, Clooney is at his most Gable-esque here, but he's also willing to look ridiculous. Turturro, in his fourth Coen film, is operating enough on the brothers' wavelength to make his underwritten character feel fully lived-in. Nelson, better known as an indie writer/director (Eye of God), is a revelation as the childlike Delmar.

Then again, you're not going to a Coen-brothers movie for rich insights into human behavior or realistic evocation of a historical period, but rather to give yourself over to master manipulators and tall-tale tellers. If you're in the right frame of mind, you may find a treasure, but not the treasure you seek.

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