Loosely based on Homer's "The Odyssey," earning an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay even though the Coens' admitted to reading only the Cliff Notes, "O Brother" is the Coens' tribute to American bluegrass music. For some reason, this movie was shamefully snubbed at the Oscars, but George Clooney earned his Golden Globe award for best actor.
Clooney plays the fast-talking Clark Gable wannabe, Ulysses Everett MacGill. Unfortunately for Ulysses, his mouth runs about five steps ahead of his brain, and his delight in the clever, hyper-articulate use of the English language cannot mask his delightful naivete. In a performance of sly self-mockery (can you think of another major film star who would so earnestly ask for a hair net to sleep in or speak movingly about being a "Dapper Dan Man"?), Clooney steals one heck of a show.
Ulysses escapes from a chain gang in Depression-era Mississippi with his sidekicks, the hot-blooded Pete (John Turturro) and easy-going Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson). Allegedly going to find some treasure before a river gets dammed, sinking the treasure beneath a deep lake, this trio begins a bizarre journey across the Deep South.
Along the way they meet guitarist Tommy Johnson, who followed an American musical legend by selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for the ability to play the guitar, Big Jim Teague (the Cyclops), three Sirens, a blind seer, Baby Face Nelson, a spelling-challenged rifle-toting youngster, and Governor Pappy O'Daniel (conveniently relocated from Texas to Mississippi). Recalling the ultimate road story of the Odyssey, "O Brother" breezes from episode to episode with delightful ease.
As ever with Coen brothers' films, the movie looks wonderful and feels authentic. You can feel the oppressive heat of the Mississippi sunshine, you choke on dusty roads, and you glory in the greens and yellows of the languid countryside. Unlike so many films set in the Old South, characters are fully-realized (even if hilariously flawed) rather than caricatures. The minor details of daily life in the South (a mild oath from Ulysses gets a stern warning -- "Watch your mouth, young feller, this is a public shop") are delightful touches.
Of course, the true star of this movie, other than Clooney, is the soundtrack. Almost solely responsible for the recent Bluegrass explosion, "O Brother" lovingly grounds this musical genre in its appropriate time and space, and the songs form a perfect accompaniment to the rest of the movie. When the congregation sings is gospel tunes, or Pappy O'Daniel leads the Soggy Bottom Boys (what a name!) in a rendition of "You Are My Sunshine," the powerful force of music resonates throughout this delightful film.
One of the best movies of recent years, it's hard to understand why "O Brother" was so snubbed by the Academy. Like other recent snubs (e.g., "Shawshank Redemption," this movie is sure to generate more critical acclaim as it ages.
Whether it's for the wonderful acting, terrific writing, or amazing soundtrack, "O Brother" should be in your collection!
For one thing, the soundtrack features a brilliant collection of grass-roots and Americana music - acoustic blues and jazz and bluegrass. Alison Krauss, already a novelty around Nashville as a platinum-selling bluegrass artist, received a thunderbolt of a boost to her career by supplying several tunes and vocal parts to the soundtrack (for example singing the Heavenly "Down to the River to Pray" during the baptism scene and the seductive voice of one of the sirens later on). Dan Tyminski, one of the musicians from Alison's band, Union Station, supplies the singing voice of George Clooney and Dan Tyminski's "Man of Constant Sorrow" became even MORE of a novelty around Nashville as it won one Country Music Award after another without the benefit of any significant radio play.
The script is VERY loosely based on Homer's Odyssey and knowing that allows the moderately educated a few hearty chuckles recognizing, for example, that John Goodman's Eye-Patched Bible Salesman represents the Cyclops.
George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson deliver the Coen's rib-tickling dialogue with gusto. I don't know why it's so entertaining to watch characters who are clueless, or at least more clueless than they think they are, but to see three bravura performances as chain-gang refugee dunces is a treat here.
In a typical early sequence our trio has just made their break from the chain-gang and Clooney's Everett begins taking charge. Turturro's Pete questions him:
"Wait a minute. Who elected you leader of this outfit?"
Everette responds "Well, Pete, I figured it should be the one with the capacity for abstract thought. But if that ain't the consensus, then hell, let's put it to a vote."
"Suits me", says Pete. "I'm voting for yours truly."
"Well, I'm voting for yours truly too" replies Everett, not backing down.
Pete and Everett turn to their slightly denser partner Delmar to break the deadlocked vote.
He ponders it thoughtfully."Okay.... I'm with you fellers".
Classic Coen Brothers.
One tidbit provided on the "Alison Krauss and Union Station LIVE DVD": Dan Tyminski, upon learning that he was going to be providing the singing voice for George Clooney, called his wife to give her the exciting news.
"Honey! They're making a movie and I'm doing a voiceover for George Clooney!"
"Oh, that's good, Dan. What's a voiceover?"
"Well, when people go to see the movie and look up on the screen, they'll see George Clooney, but when he sings it'll be my voice coming out of his mouth!"
"Oh Dan", Mrs. Tyminski replied. "That's my fantasy!"