O Brother, Where Art Thou? (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is essentially Homer's "The Odyssey" by way of the Coen Brothers with an assist from Preston Sturges (the title comes from the Sturges film, Sullivan's Travels). Or, to put it another way, it's a period piece road movie about a trio of ex-cons who wend their way around the state of Mississippi during the Great Depression. Fans of the Coens may be disappointed by this effort, however. The filmmakers' trademark quirkiness is in evidence, but it often feels forced and the comedic elements are inconsistent. O Brother, Where Art Thou? will not be remembered as one of the Coens' great works - it's on a level below the likes of Blood Simple and Fargo.

These days, quirky movies are a dime a dozen. The Coens have been making this kind of fare longer than most functioning filmmakers, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? fails to pull all of the strands together. It lacks the explosion of inventive audacity that has characterized the Coens' strongest endeavors. There are several effective moments - some approaching near-brilliance - but they are encased in a meandering storyline. That's often the danger with a road picture - the characters may be going somewhere, but they seem to be taking forever to get there.

The connection to "The Odyssey" is slim, although there is a character named Ulysses (Ulysses Everett McGill, that is, played by George Clooney), and he is on a journey of sorts. Along the way he meets all manner of "monsters" and "sirens", and, in the end, he finds the treasure that was prophesied to be his. Ulysses is an escaped convict from a Mississippi prison. Since he couldn't get out on his own, he was forced to bring two of his fellows with him - the less-than-brilliant Delmar O'Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson) and the sour, appropriately named Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro). Together, these three are on the way to retrieve Ulysses' stash of $1.2 million in ill-gotten gains. But their path to the money isn't an easy one. In addition to being pursued by the authorities, they encounter a variety of unsavory characters who are interested in robbing them, turning them in, or both. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, after recording a song as the "Soggy Bottom Boys", they become singing sensations.

As atypical as any movie currently available in a theater, O Brother, Where Art Thou? offers musical numbers, car chases, shootouts, magical realism, natural disasters, and more Dapper Dan hair care product than anyone could possibly want. The film has its share of standout sequences. The best of these involve John Goodman as Big Dan, a one-eyed Bible Salesman who can't stop talking. Then there's a scene where the trio steals a pie from a windowsill and leaves behind money to pay for their theft. And there's an encounter with three sirens which results in an alarming transformation for one of the protagonists.

As fun as O Brother, Where Art Thou? can be, it has an overlong, dragged-out feel. In essence, there seems to be less material than a 105-minute feature can support. And, as is often the case in Coen Brothers movies, there is minimal character development. We learn a little bit about Ulysses, but almost nothing about anyone else. In large part, we're willing to stick with these three individuals because the actors playing them do a good job. Clooney radiates charisma as he slides into character. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson are both effective foils, and the entire supporting cast (which includes Coen veterans like Goodman and Holly Hunter) falls into place.

At their best, the Coens have the ability to make viewers squirm in their seats, let loose with uncontrolled bursts of laughter, or both. Unfortunately, O Brother, Where Art Thou? does none of these things. It's inarguably offbeat and moderately entertaining, but there's nothing remarkable or memorable about this motion picture. The movie will undoubtedly resonate with some audience members, but I'm not one of them.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (United States, 2000)

Director: Joel Coen
Cast: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Charles Durning, John Goodman, Michael Badalucco, Holly Hunter
Screenplay: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Music: T-Bone Burnett
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2000-12-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1