Online Edition                        Updated January 19th 2001

Coens’ mythic South more tomfoolery than tight storytelling

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
At the Capitol Six

Reviewed by Peter T. Chattaway

Films by the Coen brothers are so offbeat it takes a while for each one to find its own rhythm. On one level, O Brother, Where Art Thou?—a film so saturated in Depression-era bluegrass music it’s almost a musical—doesn’t have much to worry about in that department. But on another level, this may be the slackest story Ethan and Joel Coen have told yet, drifting from one episode to the next with the barest hint of an overall narrative pulling it all together.

The film is based on Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, or so the credits tell us, but that’s only marginally more accurate than Fargo’s claim to be a true story. Homer’s ancient tale follows the efforts of one man, Odysseus (also known as Ulysses), to make his way home after many years, in order to reunite himself with his wife Penelope. In the film, George Clooney plays Ulysses Everett McGill, an escaped convict in 1930s Mississippi who, among other things, hopes to win back his estranged wife Penny (Holly Hunter) before she marries someone more "respectable."

Accompanying Ulysses on his quest are Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), fellow convicts whose drawling imbecility stands in sharp, amusing contrast to Ulysses’ fast-talking, big-worded bombast. Together, the escapees chance upon a number of characters who embody various aspects of the mythic South. For a brief spell, they are joined by Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), a blues guitarist they pick up at a crossroads; naturally, it turns out that he’s just made a deal with the devil, and since Pete and Delmar have recently been baptized in a river, Ulysses smirks, "I guess I’m the only one who’s unaffiliated." Under the moniker Soggy Bottom Boys, the four men cut a record that becomes a hit—but they don’t know it, because they’ve gone right back to hiding from the law.

The Coens have a knack for creating peculiar images and characters, and this film’s full of them. Along the way, the convicts come across a frog-squishing Bible salesman (John Goodman), a cow-shooting bank robber (Michael Badalucco), who suffers from extreme mood swings, and a popular candidate for state governor (Wayne Duvall), who claims to be a friend of the "little man"— and he’s got the midget to prove it. Strangest of all, the escapees stumble upon a Ku Klux Klan rally marked by flamboyant choreography.

But as fun and inventive as some of this tomfoolery is, the movie as a whole isn’t as satisfying as it ought to be. It’s worth seeing for some of the gags, and definitely for the music, but then, you could always buy the soundtrack.

To check Lower Mainland movie listings: click here