John GoodmanLee WeaverHolly HunterGeorge Clooney
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: the Coen brothers
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, comedy, favourite
Country: USA
Actor: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning, Del Pentecost, Michael Badalucco, J.R. Horne, Brian Reddy, Wayne Duvall, Ed Gale, Ray McKinnon, Daniel von Bargen, Royce D. Applegate, Frank Collison, Quinn Gasaway, Lee Weaver, Millford Fortenberry, Stephen Root, John Locke
Format: 107 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 6 October 2010
I loved that! It's my favourite Coen brothers film to date, although admittedly I haven't seen many. Crucially it never gave me that slightly cold distance from the on-screen action that I sometimes get from them, in which I'll occasionally find myself asking, "Why am I watching these people?" Everyone was entertaining, I wanted to know what would happen to them and I also laughed a lot.
It's loosely based on Homer's Odyssey, which blew my mind to start with. I've never read the original, but it still seemed like a loopy template for a rural Mississippi "convicts on the run" movie, set in 1937 during the Great Depression. However apparently it wasn't planned that way. The Coens just noticed the parallels while they were writing it. There are a couple of scenes where the universe of Greek myth is being imposed directly enough to be freaky, as with the old blind prophet (Tiresias) and the vampire-like washing women (Sirens and/or the goddess Circe). The former is practically the voice of the gods on Earth, while the latter are weird enough to make you wonder if the movie's about to turn supernatural.
However if you're not too worried by the film's more surreal digressions, this is basically just a riotously eccentric adventure in the Land of the Inbred. It's full of whackos and idiots, as you'd expect of the Coen brothers. It also has a singing, dancing Klu Klux Klan gathering that reminded me of evil Munchkins and will make your hands itch for a machine-gun. ("We're off to see the Grand Wizard, the wonderful Grand Wizard of Oz..." no, actually they don't sing that.)
What makes this film work isn't complicated. It's got all the Coen brothers' usual quirkiness and disconcerting, strange wit, but furthermore it's also got engaging protagonists with clear goals. George Clooney's escaped from a chain gang. He's on the run. If they catch him, they'll either lock him up for good or else (if he's in the hands of Daniel von Bargen's Sheriff Cooley) simply hang him. However on top of that, Clooney's also a man with a mission. This is a plot with plenty of horsepower... but plot's only a framework. What makes it really fun is our heroes' personalities. Clooney puts patent slime on his hair and talks like a thesaurus-eating ass, which could have been irritating except that brilliantly they've given the role to Clooney. Of all the Hollywood actors currently working, Clooney's the one I'd call a proper old-school movie star. I'm sure I've heard him compared with Cary Grant. He's endlessly charming, a genuinely talented actor to boot and always a joy to listen to. He's playing a character called Ulysses Everett McGill, by the way.
Just as important though are his two idiot convict friends: Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro. There's some powerful stupidity in this film and these two clowns are its cheerleaders. They're dumb enough that the film can get laughs just by calling them "my brains trust". A lot of skill went into playing characters this stupid and I thought they were outstanding.
In other words, our heroes are idiots and incompetents in a world where they belong, with just about everything and everyone being odd, retarded and/or afflicted with psychological problems. Just about everywhere you turn, there's something new and colourful. However it's not like, say, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, where the incidental characters were far more interesting than the four leading white boys. Look at the way Clooney's love of patent hair slime is what makes them so easy for the law to track, or else his ludicrous fist-fighting technique. The Coens have never been afraid to make their protagonists look pathetic, but in this film that just comes across as vivid characterisation and makes them all the more entertaining.
It's practically a musical. No, on second thoughts it's even more than that. Music's part of the story. The Coens love music and this time they've put together period folk music, bluegrass, African-American gospel, actual chain gang recordings and more to make a #1 Billboard album charts soundtrack that won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Within a year, it had sold five million copies and spawned three follow-up albums, two concert tours and a documentary film. Obviously it sounds great, but it's also hilarious to see our three loser heroes putting their all into performing their music. They're good! (They were actually dubbed by real bluegrass musicians, although Tim Blake Nelson was allowed to use his own voice for "In the Jailhouse Now".) Look out too for their dancing, by the way. It's awesome. They're like retarded twitching chickens.
Some of the oddest things in this film are actually authentic. The blues musician called Tommy Johnson and his deal with the devil are based on what's said about the real blues musician Tommy Johnson. Yes, the same name. Similarly Pappy O'Daniel is based on W. Lee (Pappy) O'Daniel, the Governor of Texas from 1938-1942, while there was a real George "Baby Face" Nelson.
As an aside, this film is legendary in the movie industry for its ground-breaking colour-correction. The technology had never been used like this before, but the Coens were set on having a sepia-tinted, golden look that didn't match the lush greens of Mississippi at the time of filming. It took eleven weeks to do in post-production, but the cinematographer (Roger Deakins) ended up getting nominated both for an Oscar and for an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award.
I do believe I've found a new favourite. This film is distinctive, clever, wildly entertaining and full of classical allusions if you're the kind of person who gets a kick out of those. Its full of top-quality actors, led from the front in bravura style by a George Clooney who's on top form and clearly loving every minute. He signed on without even bothering to read the script, simply because he admired the Coens.
Just as importantly though, it's also funny.
"We thought you was a toad."