A musically tinged riff on “The Odyssey” set in the Depression-era Deep South, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is a charming, if lightweight, Coen brothers escapade flecked by plenty of visual and performance grace notes. Picaresque tale of three cons in flight from life on a chain gang is more memorable for its fantastic moments than for its somewhat insubstantial cumulative impact, which will likely translate into just OK B.O. results come domestic release in the fall.
While the film’s epigraph and inspiration come from Homer, its title derives from Preston Sturges’ film-biz classic “Sullivan’s Travels,” in which the successful director played by Joel McCrea wants to abandon comedy to make a socially conscious drama about the Human Condition called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” While appropriating the handle, the Coens aren’t about to fall into the trap of pretentiousness themselves, crafting instead a seriocomedy that makes a fanciful tour of an Old Mississippi in which kismet and good bluegrass music prevail over racism and criminality.
Working with their customary tonal precision and immaculate craftsmanship, the Coens release into the wilds three escaped criminals, with the leader, Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), telling his cronies Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) that he knows where $1.2 million is buried. The first person they encounter, however, a blind black man driving a railway handcar, warns them that they will find treasure out there, but not the treasure they’re seeking.
A preening fancy man obsessively concerned with securing the right pomade for his coiffure and given to highfalutin phraseology (“It’s a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart,” he advises), Everett stands by as his buddies are cleansed of their sins in a mass river baptism. Picking up a young black musician, Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), on the road, the fellows wander into an isolated radio station/recording studio and, posing as a group called the Soggy Bottom Boys, cut a lively tune and are paid a few bills for their efforts. They then take off again and remain oblivious to the fact that the record becomes a huge hit.
One eventful encounter follows another as the boys make their way across the lushly verdant landscapes, which have been photo-graphed by Roger Deakins in slightly washed-out and burnished hues that are a constant delight. They hook up for a bank robbery with gleeful adrenaline freak George Nelson (a wonderfully live-wired Michael Badalucco), who hates his nickname, Babyface, and goes into a huge post-crime funk.
In a humorously lyrical sequence that reps a magical synthesis of visuals, performance and music, the boys come upon three “sirens” who seduce them in a watery glade; when Pete disappears thereafter, the dense Delmar presumes that his friend has been turned into a toad, which he proceeds to carry around in a shoebox until a predatory one-eyed salesman for the word of God (a Cyclops-like John Goodman) squeezes the critter to death while beating the other two silly.
Pete eventually turns up again, only to become perturbed when Everett reveals that his real goal, rather than the nonexistent treasure, is to reunite with the mother of his seven daughters, Penny (Holly Hunter), who is about to marry another fellow. In the course of things, the errant adventurers brush up against local politics, a governor’s race that pits old incumbent Pappy O’Daniel (Charles Durning) against a reform candidate whose motto, “Friend of the Little Man,” is literally represented by a broom-toting dwarf who accompanies him at every campaign stop.
After slipping in a quiet homage to “Sullivan’s Travels” in which members of a chain gang are given a little recreation at a “picture show,” the Coens deliver one of their major set pieces, a stupendously choreographed Ku Klux Klan rally that is disrupted by the boys in a fashion that slyly evokes the invasion of the Wicked Witch’s castle by Dorothy’s friends in “The Wizard of Oz.” Raucous, the-devil-gets-his-due musical climax is fun (and given a big charge by Durning in a splendid, performance-capping turn), but is also rather too fairy-tale-ish and too-good-to-be-true to truly satisfy, leaving this an “Odyssey” without full closure.
Lack of irony and complexity in the wrap-up may be a shortcoming, but it also points up the welcome absence of condescension and ridicule in the film’s portrait of dimwits, con men, rednecks and country folk. Most of the characters, including the three leads, may be dumb, misguided and delusional, but they are also engaging and straightforward, to be enjoyed for the colorful oddballs that they are.
Not for the first time recalling Clark Gable in his looks and line delivery, Clooney clearly delights in embellishing Everett’s vanity and in delivering the Coens’ carefully calibrated, high-toned dialogue. Turturro and Nelson (a character actor who directed the 1997 indie “Eye of God” and the upcoming “Othello” update “O”) are a real dumb-and-dumber combo without veering into slapstick, while supporting cast reflects the typical Coen richness, from Durning and well-known regulars Goodman and Hunter through Stephen Root as the blind recording entrepreneur, musician King as the boys’ sometime collaborator and Daniel Von Bargen as a relentless sheriff who pursues the escapees to the bitter end.
Not as elaborate as “The Hudsucker Proxy” or “The Big Lebowski,” pic is nonetheless a modest technical marvel in which Deakins’ splendid lensing blends seamlessly with Dennis Gassner’s evocative production design, Mary Zophres’ imaginative costumes and some special and digital effects that are all but imperceptible as such (watch for that cow). Delta blues music, a combo of T Bone Burnett and pre-existing tunes, is another major plus.