O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

7 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Remember when after “Fargo” was said to be based on a true story; the Coen Brothers revealed that it wasn’t entirely true. Now they say their movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is based on the epic poem “The Odyssey” by Homer. They later revealed that they had never read the story. This movie is not an adaptation to the poem, although there are a few elements taken from the story put into this strange, whimsical Western—there’s a Cyclops, three sirens singing on some rocks near a river, and a journey in which one thing happens after another.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is an active, wonderful piece of work from the Coen Brothers. It’s a fun, strange, whimsical Western story about three members of a chain gang who escape while shackled to each other’s ankles. When unchained, they go on a series of adventures to find a buried treasure that one of them says to have left behind at his home. Oh, and they come across a one-eyed Bible salesman. And three women bathing on rocks that they call sirens.

It’s a road movie, basically, in which these three Southern fugitives seek to find redemption and joy. The self-appointed ringleader Everett McGill (George Clooney) is seeking to settle things with his wife (Holly Hunter); the sour appropriately-named Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) is hoping to start a new life away from the family name; and the dim-witted Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) learns along the way that baptism is the best way to go from here. They are chased by the town sheriff, who has a hollow voice, sunglasses, and a big dog.

While on the run, they go through many occurrences, as many people in road movies do. They get baptized in a river, they are briefly accompanied by a black boy named Tommy who sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads, they become a huge hit by singing a bluegrass-themed song “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” and they come across a one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman). These sequences are handled effectively and to near-brilliance. Some are funny, like the Cyclops; some are just plain fun, I especially love the scenes involving the men singing “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” while dubbed as the Soggy Bottom Boys; some are dark, the men come across a Ku Klux Klan rally at one point. And then there’s one particular sequence that almost stops the show. It’s an encounter with three sirens that bathe themselves near a riverbank and sing in unison, “Go to Sleep, Little Baby.”

All of these sequences are well-done, and the actors have fun with their roles. Tim Blake Nelson, in particular, seems born to play this role—he has that natural dim-wittedness and his accent helps a lot as well. One criticism I must make is that Everett’s no-nonsense wife is a nagging shrew. I have to wonder why Everett would want to go back to this woman at all. I don’t think I can necessarily hold this against Holly Hunter, although she plays this person all too well. I also didn’t really laugh at the random acts of violence against animals in this movie (cows get shot and a toad is squashed). (I think it’s written in stone that no animal is safe in a Coen Brothers movie.)

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” does succeed in making us squirm in our seats during a few points and then laugh out loud during a few others. Sometimes, it does both. This is an entertaining road movie with charm, humor, and just plain fun in its Western surroundings.

NOTE: I have absolutely no idea why this film is called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” If anybody has an idea as to why it is called that, please don’t hesitate to tell me.

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