Innovation is a good thing to have in any film, but not when it exists as the heart and soul of the work.
Famous for surreal comedies like Fargo and Raising Arizona, the Coen brothers put so much energy into finding new ways to "wow" audiences, that their characters are often given the screenwriting shaft, frequently ending up as broad, borderline-offensive caricatures. O Brother, Where Art Thou? falls into the same trap and, while more naively likeable than most Coen brothers fare, it's more lightweight, too.
Loosely based on Homer's Odyssey, it follows the road adventures of a trio of escaped convicts--the dimwitted but articulate Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), the dimwitted, antagonistic Pete (John Turturro), and the just plain dimwitted Delmer (Tim Blake Nelson). These three bumbling losers hit the roads of Depression-era Mississippi to unbury $1.2 million that Everett had to stash before landing in jail. Along the way, they meet Tommy Johnson, a black guitarist who recently sold his soul to the devil, a Cyclops-like Bible salesman (John Goodman), a bipolar sociopath gangster named Babyface Nelson, and many more.
One of their first stops is at a rural radio station, where the three convicts have heard the proprietors will pay money for singers to record music. Eager to collect the dough, the men sit down for a recording session, open their mouths, and lo and behold--beautiful music comes out. Not thinking too much of it, "The Soggy Bottom Boys," as they call themselves, move on with their cash in hand. Unbeknownst to them, their record becomes a hit all over the South, and everybody starts looking for them.
As evidenced by the way characters go cross-eyed when punched and alcoholic beverages are labeled with a big "XXX," O Brother is a rootin'-tootin' screwball comedy of Looney Tunes proportions, something rarely attempted these days, and something usually done very poorly. (The recent Snatch is an example of the quite awful turn the screwball comedy has taken recently.) Fortunately, the Coens' trademark cartoonish characterizations and their mastery of misfit accents both fit very naturally into this Three Stooges mold. Plus, the Coens are usually smart enough to bestow upon their hapless protagonists some miraculous talent or natural ability (in this case, singing), thus rendering them somewhat less pitiful.
Clooney was manufactured for just such a role: His slick hair, square jaw, and perfect teeth make him look like an overly handsome silent film star, and he proudly tosses off $10-dollar words like "precept," "paterfamilias" and "vis-à-vis" with a clipped, amiable self-satisfaction. As his dumber sidekicks, Turturro and Nelson's thin faces and bulging eyes serve them quite well.
But where most screwball comedies by nature leave a critical response unnecessary, the Coens' dark vision of America seeps into O Brother just enough to make it border on the uncomfortable. What are we to make of an essentially G-rated farce that features a chilling sequence involving a giant Ku Klux Klan lynch mob?
The Coens have attempted to set up a cross-section of the real South, circa 1935--corrupt politicians, opportunistic carpetbaggers, false prophets and racist hate groups included. The trio of kindhearted convicts act as our Forrest Gumps, unintentionally guiding us through a certain time and place with no particular M.O. of their own. But while Forrest Gump sentimentalized an entire era, O Brother's effect is much less condescending. In a way, despite all of its "You sto' from my kin!"-style dialogue, O Brother's worldview is rather affectionate; it's as if the Coens are saying, "Here's America, boils and all, but damn it all--look at how many different kinds of boils there are!" With the sweeping art design and geographical scope of this movie, the Coens reveal themselves to be as wide-eyed as their narrative counterparts. Maybe they don't attempt to understand America, but they are certainly awed by it.
As with most journey movies, however, what the filmmakers gain in "scope" and zany situations they lose in general coherence. O Brother emerges as a series of comic vignettes--and there are some great ones--rather than a work that can stand on its own. The Coens seem to hope that, since they've dragged you so far through the underbrush of America, that you'll simply begin believing every far-fetched thing they tell you. It doesn't quite work, and some of their quirky twists and turns just leave you scratching your head.
By the end of the film, you feel as if you've witnessed the telling of a brand-new myth, with just as many blind fortunetellers, speaking animals, evil ogres and acts of God as any Homerian tale. And like many such tales, while memorable, O Brother's are frequently baffling. In one scene, Pete is supposedly turned into a toad. OK, so, now what? Granted, it's weird and ties into The Odyssey, but what in the heck does it mean?
In fact, the Coens' capital-Q "Quirky" has grown a little tired over the years. More often than not, the quirkiness comes courtesy of broad stereotypes, and the fact that they're usually affectionate stereotypes does not completely absolve the Coens of a kind of character laziness. A funny accent and strange personality tic or two does not a good character make.
It's hard to fault their laziness because their camera and sound work is so not lazy. With every shot, you get the feeling that the Coens considered every possible angle and motion before settling on the perfect one. Their soundtrack is as rich, layered and effectively mixed as any filmmaker's this decade. Thus, their characters, however simple, are revealed in the most cinematically flattering of lights, making them seem all the more vital.
A lot has been made of the old-country/bluegrass music that peppers the production, and it is indeed incredible. It's hard not laughing and whooping from the sheer joy of hearing it performed--and that is the measure of great music. You can't help but wish there were a lot more music in the film, because it tends to glue the movie's disparate scenes together. Without it, O Brother feels more like a good episode of Saturday Night Live--familiar faces, wacky characters, slapstick antics, good music, guest stars, and a few skits that don't make any sense at all. And like SNL, if a bathroom trip forces you to miss a few sketches, ultimately it won't matter.