Take Ulysses from Homer's "Odyssey," turn him into a dusty but peculiarly dapper hillbilly escaped from a Mississippi chain gang, circa 1937, and whaddya got? Only the funniest, most inspired movie of Coen Brothers illustrious comedy careers.
Taking screwball cues from Depression Era Hollywood and usurping their title from the "message movie" Joel McCrea's frustrated director wanted to make in 1941's satire "Sullivan's Travels," this picture's writers-directors Ethan and Joel Coen cook up a masterpiece of a scruffy romp about a no-class fugitive trying to get home to his wife before she re-marries to a colorless, straw-hatted dandy who holds more promise as a provider.
And who did the Coens get to play their uncouth Cajun hero, Ulysses "Everett" McGill? Why if it isn't George Clooney in a perfectly jaunty performance that seems to channel both the roguish comedic charm of Clark Gable in "It Happened One Night" and the earnest zaniness of Cary Grant in his screwiest comedies.
With wild wide eyes and dancing eyebrows that indicate how hard the gears grind when he's tryin' to think, Everett leads his two partners -- a maladjusted numskull named Pete (John Turturro) and a sweet simpleton named Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) -- in a state-crossing adventure that begets them almost nothing but trouble.
Thinking Everett is leading them to buried loot from a train heist, Pete and Delmar help steal a car, pick up a hitchhiking guitar player (Chris Thomas King) who has sold his soul to the devil, get mugged by a one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman), have a run-in with the Ku Klux Klan (which begins as a chanting song-and-dance number), pick up bank robber Baby Face Nelson, and stumble into the middle of a dirty Mississippi governor's race.
In the Coens' most direct nod to their source material, the trio is charmed by Homer's mythical Sirens in the form of three Southern beauties who mesmerize our boys with their sensuously melodious singing while they do their washing in a river.
They also pass themselves off to a blind radio DJ as a singing quintet called the Soggy Bottom Boys, recording a seriously catchy banjo ditty that becomes a hit record while they're busy ducking and dodging the law, "Bonnie and Clyde" style.
Each of these episodes is funnier and more inventive than the last, and part of the movie's charm is that you don't need to know anything about Homer or "The Odyssey" to be holding your sides as the spirited silliness ensues with aplomb. A working knowledge of classical literature just makes "O Brother" that much better.
From the silent-film style opening credits to the embellished Southern vernacular to the film's wink at the era's hobo mythos, "O Brother" is packed frame-by-frame with the kind of minute, compound details that give it that distinctive Coen comedy flavor -- which seems livelier and more attuned than ever. Every crazy, whimsical element of the movie just comes together seamlessly.
But if any one thing stands out, it's the way Clooney so authentically inhabits Everett, the scruffy seat-of-his-pants improvisational schemer who fancies himself a sprucy, pencil mustachioed cavalier.
Handed traits that could have been personified as one-note jokes -- like Everett's all-consuming obsession with his hair -- he rolls them all into a three-dimensional character that is both a winsome, cagey hero and delightfully preposterous bumpkin at the same time.
The Coens' pure genius for lifestyle caricature ("Raising Arizona," "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski") has reached a mirthful zenith with "O Brother Where Art Thou?" and after a year that spawned far, far more bad movies than good, it's such a resonant relief to see a picture that is so clearly the best of the year that I'd could just kiss these guys for restoring some joy to my job as a critic. Three cheers for the Coen Brothers!