For many cinema buffs the phrase “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is more than an in-joke—it’s a password, a touchstone. Derived from Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, it’s the name of the “serious” motion picture that director John Sullivan wants to make about life in the Depression. Sturges used the joke to take digs both at artists who’ve grown too isolated from real life and the executives willing to greenlight Sullivan’s project so long as he promises to put “a little sex in it.” Sturges’ Sullivan never got to make his picture, but now Joel and Ethan Coen have delivered it to us 60 years after the fact. It may not be the movie that Sullivan had in mind—it’s too damn funny, for one thing—but it strikes a blow for social justice that Sully would have approved of. And it even has a little sex in it.
It wouldn’t be chivalrous to describe O Brother, Where Art Thou? in too much detail: too much of its pleasure flows from the easy way its larger-than-life incidents roll up out of nowhere. Suffice it to say that Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), and Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) are three escaped convicts living one jump ahead of the posse in Depression-era Mississippi. The promise of sharing a mysterious buried treasure leads the trio through a landscape crowded with fantastic versions of American types—politico fatcats, nomadic bluesmen, Bible drummers, and bank robbers. The Coens have drawn on that mother of all road epics, Homer’s The Odyssey, to give some semblance of structure to their story, retrofitting Odysseus’ 20-year journey with homier proportions. Some of the parallels, such as John Goodman’s Cyclops, are transparent at first blush; others require a little teasing out. (The Scylla and Charybdis that the convicts must choose between have mutated into a burning barn and a band of trigger-happy lawmen.) The parallels are deliberately makeshift—they’re only dimples in the movie’s already happy face—but they give shape to some of the movie’s most memorable sequences.
O Brother’s world may be populated by Sirens but it’s warmed by a purely American sun. Baby Face Nelson and the Ku Klux Klan walk directly into the picture, while Robert Johnson, The Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick, Thieves Like Us, and William Faulkner cast their shadows over it at one point or another. Sturges’ influence runs through more than the title: a famous scene from Sullivan’s Travels is replayed from a new perspective, and many of the movie’s characters are pure Sturgesian offspring. (Charles Durning’s governor could be a country cousin of the mayor in Hail the Conquering Hero!) Watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? is like sinking into a multi-tiered cake that’s stuffed with the fruits of the American landscape. The screen is littered with pomade tins and department store catalogs; a lynch-party is choreographed like a football halftime show; a barnstorming gubernatorial election fills out one of the movie’s corners. Roger Deakins’ lush photography shows off the rural burgs and moss-bearded swamps of western Mississippi in the most serenely beautiful imagery the Coens have ever put on film. And all of this is animated by a multi-hued soundtrack of old blues, spiritual, and country tunes sung by a cadre of distinguished contemporary artists using recording techniques from the thirties. Some of the songs are seen as they were performed live within the film, but all of them are worked so smoothly into the story that not until after the fact do you realize that you’ve just sat through, among other things, a different kind of musical.
The promiscuous allusiveness in O Brother, Where Art Thou? has more emotional traction than it does in most of the Coen Brothers’ work; they’ve made a warmer, more accessible movie than we’re used to getting from them. Less self-consciously irreverent than The Big Lebowski, less inchoate than Barton Fink, O Brother doesn’t make us swat our way past a lot of attitude and mind-games: the archness that slides into smart-aleckiness, the opacity that feels like a refusal to commit to meaning. O Brother’s bearings are so clean that even a pair of impeccably stupid walk-on characters don’t raise the usual suspicions about the Coens’ attitude towards “the little people.” When Everett hunches over a radio station’s microphone to belt out “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” and the blind station manager turns his freakishly twisted eyebrows towards the ceiling in rapture, we know exactly what’s going on—we’re all enjoying a marvelous song.
The movie has three or four dazzling—and I mean dazzling—set-pieces, and these are balanced by unexpected pockets of tenderness, such as Tim Blake Nelson’s little campfire speech about what he has planned for his share of the loot. But all of the action, be it large or small, aims towards a point late in the picture when the community’s dragons are slain and its heroes finally vindicated. Jubilation is a rare commodity in American movies, but in this moment O Brother, Where Art Thou? picks us up with its earthy sense of harmony and goodwill. It makes you want to lift your voice and sing along, for the Coen Brothers have put it all together.
– Tom Block