As the tongue-in-cheek opening titles make explicitly clear, Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest opus, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is based (loosely) on Homer’s Odyssey. Our hero, Ulysses (get it?) Everett McGill, must brave a series of adventures across 1930s Mississippi — including encounters with a bewitching trio of Sirens and a Cyclops-surrogate working the age-old Bible salesman con — before returning home to reclaim his ex-wife Penny (get it?) and cast out her “bona fide” suitor. As the ever-sophomoric Joel has quipped, “Whenever it’s convenient, we trot out The Odyssey.”
To spice the postmodern gumbo further, O Brother lifts its title from Preston Sturges’ comedy classic, Sullivan’s Travels. Apparently, the Coens envisioned their effort (once more, tongue firmly in cheek) as the “important movie” that Sturges’ titular director wished to make. The brothers also sample liberally from Bonnie & Clyde, Thieves Like Us, The Wild Palms and God knows what else — I stopped counting after the first fifteen minutes. At the very least, you have to give the brothers props for their source material.
Over the years, the Coens have perfected a smugly, self-congratulatory cinema — all surface flash and “twisted” plotting — that risks little and means less. At their worst (Barton Fink comes to mind), the Coens engineer a cinematic snipe hunt, unloosing an endless string of referents with no apparent payoff. At their best (either the overrated Fargo or the underrated The Big Lebowski), they approximate genuine human emotion — good humor, warmth, even empathy.
Yet their claque is vociferous and intelligent enough to encourage second-guessing. Despite vague recollections of lukewarm indifference to their debut, I approached the fifteenth anniversary Blood Simple road show (deemed a modern-day Citizen Kane by some) with an open mind. I emerged two hours later with my initial impressions confirmed if not strengthened — a mean-spirited, condescending, claustrophobic neo-noir exercise in…well, neo-noir film.
Fittingly, O Brother’s mixed reception may reflect a critical sea change; perhaps the brothers have overstayed their welcome at the hipsters’ table. Favorable reviews tend to emphasize the film’s minor pleasures, while mounting negative press has been unusually savage and personal — a decade of simmering reservations and resentments funneled into one unfettered critical pile-on. All of which places me in the unenviable position of having to defend the work of filmmakers I regard with barely (and/or rarely) concealed contempt.
As any discerning No Depression reader may already suspect, what ultimately distinguishes O Brother from the extended Little Moron joke it’s often pegged as is the music. From the distant thunder of the chain gang lament “Po Lazarus” to the blind seer’s farewell “Angel Band”, the film celebrates a music — rough and intimate around the campfire, warm and reassuring over the family radio, forthright and populist on the campaign trail — that informed, enriched and influenced everyday Depression-era life.
The Coens and musical director T Bone Burnett assembled the soundtrack before the actual shoot, allowing the music’s rhythm and spirit to inform the project. In fact, the rambler’s Dionysian reverie “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, with its lemonade springs and lakes of stew, offers a truer, more felt narrative sketch than either The Odyssey or Sullivan’s Travels. The resultant film resembles a loose, bemused ramble through a series of tall tales and whoppers, all set against a sun-saturated landscape (oddly reminiscent of Three Kings’ scorched-earth palette).
Perhaps inspired by the soundtrack’s simple pleasures and effortless charm, the Coens even ditch their well-stocked arsenal of distancing devices on occasion, risking several unguarded moments of beauty and wonder. The film’s two most memorable sequences boast a flowing, lyrical sensibility redolent of unaffected aural and visual splendor: a celestial riverside baptism set to the haunting strains of Alison Krauss’ “Down To The River To Pray”, and a lighthearted, seemingly tossed-off montage keyed to Krauss and Gillian Welch’s lovely “I’ll Fly Away”.
Despite such unprecedented grace points, O Brother ultimately falls short of Fargo and Lebowski. The film’s final half-hour — ranging from a misbegotten Klan rally qua Busby Berkeley homage (pace, it has its adherents) to a contrived (perhaps tacked-on) second ending — recalls the anal yet sloppy filmmaking of the brothers’ pre-Fargo period. In addition, the movie’s A-list talent appears all too eager to vamp and leer in deference to the Coens’ sideshow caricatures. Only George Clooney, in a slyly self-lacerating star turn, and Tim Blake Nelson, as a blessed idiot saint, rise above the script’s one-note sketches.
Still, as an exploration of music’s role in life as lived, I’ll take O Brother over Almost Famous (though probably not High Fidelity). And as a modern day neo-musical, I’ll take it over Dancer In The Dark (though definitely not Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole). There’s real emotion here, and real substance. For the Coens, that qualifies as an adventurous step forward.