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in Bloc Magazine

O Brother, where art thou?
Cast: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Badalucco, Charles Durning, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Wayne Duvall, Chris Thomas King, John McConnell, Tim Nelson, Mia Tate, Christy Taylor, Musetta Vander (the last three actresses play this film's version of the Sirens), John Locke
Director: Joel Coen (Fargo, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, Miller's Crossing, Blood Simple)
Screenwriters: Ethan and Joel Coen (writers of the above films; their next project is Untitled Coen Brothers Barber Noir Project)

George Clooney as Everett

Dir: Joel Coen (2000)
The new movie from Joel and Ethan Coen, the sibling producer/director team who brought us ‘Fargo’ and ‘The Big Lebowski’, is possibly the least commercial film the brothers have yet made. After all, it is based on Homer’s ‘ The Odyssey ’ and sports a title that is as likely to create confusion as it is to arouse interest from the general movie going public.

For the record, the title is lifted from a 1941 film called ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ in which a movie director finds himself torn between his studio’s demands that he make a feelgood musical and his own desire to make a miserably realistic drama about injustice called, you guessed it, ‘ O Brother, Where Art Thou?’

The Coen brothers themselves have made a movie which is part musical and part social realism. The story follows three escaped convicts on the run through Mississippi during the 1930’s depression. Led by Ulysses (see the connection with Ancient Greece?) Everett McGill, (George Clooney) - who claims to be searching for a treasure horde that he hid before being arrested - the convicts constantly try to evade re-capture and meet a host of strange, funny and surprising characters along the way. However, McGill’s real reason for escaping custody is to get back together with his wife, (Holly Hunter), who has convinced everyone she knows, including her own children, that her husband was knocked down and killed by a train.

During the course of the movie, Everett and his fugitive companions manage to record a hit record, disrupt the imminent election of the new State Governor and save a man who is about to be lynched by the Klu Klux Klan. If you think the plot sounds more than a bit odd then you’d be right. In fact, the idea is so completely off-the-wall that it shouldn’t really work. Fortunately, however, due to a set of fine performances, (particularly from John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as Everett’s hapless side-kicks), and a very witty script, the movie works surprisingly well.

‘ O Brother, Where Art Thou? ’ somehow manages to be refreshingly original and enjoyably old-fashioned at the same time. The movie has the look and feel of vintage Hollywood, (many people have commented that Clooney with a moustache is a dead ringer for Clark Gable) but includes some bizarre and inventive twists that wouldn’t feel out of place in a surreal modern movie like ‘ Being John Malkovich’.
The movie’s box office trump card is its star, George Clooney. Here he is much better served than he was in this summer’s damp squid ‘The Perfect Storm’. Nevertheless, no matter how dirty and scruffy he is made to look and no matter how strongly he pronounces his southern drawl, he still looks like he should be playing the dishy doctor in a TV hospital drama.

In order to appreciate this film fully and pick up on the ‘oh so clever’ mythological references, I suspect you will need to have read ‘The Odyssey’ from cover-to-cover. Unfortunately, that rules out about 98% of the population. This reviewer did at least figure out that John Goodman wearing an eye-patch was supposed to be the Cyclops.

The unfamiliar story structure that the Coen’s have borrowed from the ancient Greeks explains why this film takes some getting used to. The plot is episodic, moving from one little adventure to the next without much to connect each one except the characters themselves. Nevertheless, once you’ve settled into the rhythm of the film it proves to be a richly rewarding experience. It may not be particularly profound, but it is certainly entertaining, and that’s what movies are meant to be anyway, aren’t they?

© Chris Lean 10.2000

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