Whether it's through common sense, clean living, or skill, Joel and Ethan Coen have avoided a creative snag. After some 20 years, their movies are still original, intelligent. and funny without being aloof. Their latest effort, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is no exception. Based on Homer's epic, The Odyssey, and set in Depression-era Mississippi, the brothers have done the unthinkable: They've taken classic literature and made it fun.
The tale, which includes references to the epic throughout, has three escaped convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Evans) overcoming various obstacles in retrieving a load of loot Clooney has supposedly hidden. Of course, things go awry in classic, semi-bizarre Coen brothers style. There's a meeting with a one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman), a chance encounter with an overly sensitive Babyface Nelson, and a flirtation with fame when the cons become hillbilly singers. Oh, and I forgot to mention encounters with the Ku Klux Klan, the excitable governor of Mississippi (a hysterical Charles Durning), three very sexy sirens, and a load of spirituality.
A lot is thrown at the audience here, but Joel and Ethan continue to be experts at molding the workings of a fevered imagination with dramatic substance. Look at Fargo. Yes, it is about a kidnapping gone brutally awry and the excessively pregnant cop who solves the case, but the film is really a portrait of a small-town nobody (William H. Macy's car salesman) and how unbelievably desperate he is to be someone -- so much so that he initiates his own wife's abduction.
The same magnificent trick happens in Brother. The sirens, the fame, the power of Babyface are all brilliantly presented as part of a supremely entertaining road movie. But these events and people are material obstacles the characters must overcome to achieve real happiness and awareness, which occurs in a climax I wouldn't dare spoil.
The performances from the three leads are a huge asset, as they avoid becoming three Forrest Gump clones. Nelson is especially good. I've never heard of him, but I'd like to see more of him. As a yokel who's determined to get the family farm back, he has a goofy lack of pretension that seems genuine. He's the anti-Pauly Shore.
As for Turturro, is there any role the man can't play? I've been watching him for years, and he's never given a bad performance. He's played child-molesting bowlers, card sharks, meek general store clerks, and rednecks all the same way--superbly. Clooney is also edging up on my list of suave and talented actors. His laid-back, articulate cool provides the perfect tone for the movie. It's a joy to watch him here.
And it's a joy to watch this movie as a whole. The Coen brothers are all about pushing the envelope, and then reading the surprisingly intelligent, thoughtful letter inside. In Brother the skill and clarity in which they do this is astounding.
On DVD, O Brotherlooks smashing, and the extras included, while few, are quite enjoyable. The typical making-of documentary features some rare interviews with the Coen brothers, and the "Painting with Pixels" vignette tells you more than you could ever want to know about using color timing and answer prints to make a green valley look like a Depression-era dust bowl. Don't r-u-n-n-o-f-t.
Brothers on the run.
Run time: 106 mins
In Theaters: Friday 2nd February 2001
Box Office USA: $45.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $71M
Distributed by: Buena Vista
Production compaines: Touchstone Pictures, Universal Pictures, Studio Canal
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Fresh: 115 Rotten: 34
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Joel Coen
Producer: Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney as Everett Ulysses McGill, John Turturro as Pete, Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar, John Goodman as Big Dan Teague, Holly Hunter as Penny, Chris Thomas King as Tommy Johnson, Charles Durning as Pappy O'Daniel, Del Pentecost as Junior O'Daniel, Michael Badalucco as George Nelson, J.R. Horne as Pappy's Staff, Brian Reddy as Pappy's Staff, Wayne Duvall as Homer Stokes, Ed Gale as The Little Man, Ray McKinnon as Vernon T. Waldrip, Daniel von Bargen as Sheriff Cooley, Mia Tate as Siren, Musetta Vander as Siren, Christy Taylor as Siren, Millford Fortenberry as Pomade Vendor, Frank Collison as Wash Hogwallop, Quinn Gasaway as Boy Hogwallop, Lee Weaver as Blind Seer
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