In trying to get a handle on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I wrote about the Herbert Ross version of Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven, deciding that it spoke to the apparent impossibility of ever making another great Hollywood musical. Why wasn’t it obvious then that the Coens, with their innate eccentricities, flair for grand theater, and command of editing rhythms, would be just the folks to reinvent the genre? O Brother, Where Art Thou? only gets partway there — it’s not exactly a musical, and it’s only “Hollywood” in the literal sense. But it is a whimsical, lyrical journey through a national heritage suggested and fulfilled by the songs that hold it together.
Preston Sturges fans recognize O Brother, Where Art Thou? as the high-flown title of the serious picture that Joel McCrea longed to direct in Sullivan’s Travels, itself one of the great film comedies. Knowing the reference makes the title card that credits Homer’s The Odyssey as inspiration for O Brother a mighty funny joke in its own right. Yep, George Clooney’s character is named Ulysses and yep, there’s a trio of honey-voiced sirens that draw our protagonists into danger and yep, John Goodman shows up as a one-eyed Bible salesman of nefarious intent. But those characters are dropped into a landscape also populated by Baby-Face Nelson, Robert Johnson (here inexplicably called “Tommy”) and, I think, both God and the Devil.
The narrative belongs to a trio of fugitives from a chain gang. There’s Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (a googly-eyed John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson). Everett has masterminded the jailbreak, convincing the other two, who are chained to his legs, to tag along by promising them a share of the fabulous treasure he says he buried before getting locked up. Well-played by Clooney as a fella whose forte is fast talk and self-assuredness rather than actual smarts, Everett is hysterically straight-faced and unflappable. His primary concern throughout is personal grooming (a running gag has him waking up from sleep and exclaiming, suddenly, “Mah hair!”). Turturro is a bubbling cauldron of inarticulate frustration and Nelson a slack-jawed, perpetually flummoxed hayseed; the two of them cede leadership to Everett simply because he’s the least hapless of the three.
Driving a stolen car, they happen across a crossroads where Tommy is hitching a ride en route to a hole-in-the-wall radio station that pays talented passers-by to sing in its tin-can recording studio. With Tommy’s backing, they cut a single as The Soggy Bottom Boys in the film’s showpiece musical number. The single promptly becomes a sensation, though our on-the-lam protagonists don’t realize it.
That off-hand musicality is a key to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which takes place in an America where music was both participatory sport and communal experience and popular culture was still unfragmented. The songs have been re-recorded with an exhilarating fidelity impossible back in the day, which makes their presentation here all the more pleasurable. Like the ‘Based on a True Story’ legend that opens Fargo, the credit to Homer is a red herring. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a tale that takes place in an imagined American past inspired and defined by the Coens’ experience of its popular song.
Shot in color-bleached tones that tend toward sepia, O Brother is another clear triumph for cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has been responsible for some of the loveliest Super-35 photography of recent years, including Martin Scorsese’s Kundun and the last two Coens films, Fargo and The Big Lebowski. Here, the widescreen compositions and choreographed camera moves work in close conspiracy with the broad performances and absolutely on-the-mark film editing (by the pseudonymous Coens and Tricia Cooke) to put the frequent gags across. The lesson learned from Sturges is obvious—if O Brother weren’t so damned funny, and generous in spirit, its pretensions would be unbearable.
In a way, O Brother is the ur-Coen Brothers movie. If they’ve always investigated various manifestations of Americana — a country populated by gangsters, rednecks, slackers and screenwriters — this is the first chance they’ve had to bring all those different archetypes together. The resulting movie is as breezy and cocksure as Everett himself. It ambles easily from a lakeside baptismal procession to a fiery Klan rally, and dabbles in its own caricatured visions of bank robbery and good-ol-boy politics. Credibility is not the story’s strong suit, nor is authenticity. But in the end, it all makes a wobbly but very satisfying kind of sense as our trio endures fire and flood to attain salvation, Coens-style. And when we see God himself riding the rails, the story expands easily to mythic proportions.