The epic poet Homer is given writing credit on "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (IMDb listing) because it is billed as being based upon "The Odyssey." This is true in the same sense that Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" is based on Stephen King's novel the same characters and names show up, and some of the events are the same, but it isn't the most faithful of adaptations. Much like "The Shining," however, Joel and Ethan Coen's "O Brother" is thoroughly enjoyable if treated as a piece unto itself rather than as a simple adaptation.
The movie's plot resembles the "The Odyssey": A man is journeying home to his wife and family, hoping he can reach them before his wife remarries. "O Brother" takes this out of the ancient world and starts it instead with a jailbreak in Depression-era Mississippi. Some of the Coens's other modifications include their protagonists recording an album, eating gopher, and getting banned from Woolworth's. Meanwhile, the Sirens, Cyclops and even the city of Troy all are reconceived to fit in the 1930s.
The lunacy of the Coen brothers mixes well with the epic themes and characters of the original work. Much like the book, the movie uses symbolism and archetypes extremely well. The use of the red-robed Klan master as one of the main obstacles is even more effective after the set-up of a discussion about the devil and his appearance early in the movie. The camera angle used in the KKK scene turns the crucifix of marching Klansman on its head, so that it becomes an upside-down cross a mark of the devil rather than the holy symbol intended by the Klan. Small visual effects like these help raise the film from silliness to quality cinema. Scenes featuring Baptists, modern Sirens and a radio station owner also help to give the film the mythical feel of "The Odyssey" without compromising the story's overall plausibility.
The characters, and the vast majority of the performances, are strong. George Clooney makes a successful departure from his usual role, playing wordy goofball and convict Ulysses Everett McGill, a character that can be appreciated for both his similarities to and differences from the original Ulysses. Both represent reason in a strongly superstitious world (but McGill's penchant for hair care products is a nice addition).
Coen staple John Turturro turns in a strong performance as one of the idiot jailbirds. Despite his character's foolishness, Turturro manages to convey a respectable level of depth. John Goodman, while perhaps underused, makes a wonderfully despicable Cyclops. Tim Blake Nelson's Delmar is consistently entertaining.
Of course, the movie is not without shortcomings. The magnified accents occasionally make it difficult to understand some of the dialogue, but the overall meaning of the words generally comes across enough to keep the audience up to speed. Still, as rich in detail as the movie is, it's disappointing to miss out on a single word. Also, perhaps due to its roots in the epic poem, some of the characters often seem flat.
While there are a number of allusions to "The Odyssey" that should give classics students a good chuckle, you don't need to have read the book to enjoy this movie. More of a spin than a retelling, Joel and Ethan Coen opt for a madcap world closer to "The Big Lebowski," or even "Raising Arizona," than their critically-acclaimed "Fargo."
Indeed, the sunglasses-wearing cop played by Daniel van Bargen of "Malcolm in the Middle" fame who dogs the convicts recalls the biker villain from "Raising Arizona," and the three jailbirds are closer to the Dude and his bowling team than to Steve Buscemi and his silent partner.
Despite its bizarre nature, "O Brother" has a definite depth to it. An easily missed detail is that the Klansman gubernatorial candidate loses his momentum not because of his hatred of nonwhites, but because of his hatred of the popular music group (and our convict-heroes' alter egos) the Soggy Bottom Boys. The white-supremacist leanings allow contemporary audiences, though not his constituency, to hate the character. This allows the Coens to make a subtle, but powerful, statement about race and class relations. Using the KKK may seem easy since, like the Nazis, the Klan is clearly a sign of evil. But the way they use it not just to set apart the hero and villain, but also to show the blindness of society at that time comments on the blindness of contemporary society and shows the level of thought that went into the movie. This sort of depth lifts "O Brother" from being just entertaining to being a wonderful mix of social commentary and hilarity.
In that sense, the movie is faithful to "The Odyssey," mixing art, savagery and humor. "O Brother" is, in a word, tight. Things come together in a way that is satisfying rather than forced, and that makes for an enjoyable viewing experience.
Filmfodder Grade: A
Review courtesy Flak Magazine.