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A far fall from "Fargo" for the Coen Brothers...
on December 2, 2003
I haven't seen many of the Coen Brothers' films, although one of the two I have seen is one of my favorites ("Fargo"), and the other I've seen is one I don't care for very much ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?"). One of the films has a lot of humor, the other doesn't. One of the films is extremely entertaining; the other is just sort of boring.
"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is a retelling of Homer's "Odyssey," or "Homer's Odyssey," since you never see the title without the name preceding it anymore; Homer's name is practically part of the title, now. Am I digressing?
It starts with three runaway convicts, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmer (Tim Blake Nelson). Everett - as his chumps call him - has a strange fascination with his own hair, and Dapper Dan hair cream. "I'm a Dapper Dan Man!" he proclaims after being offered another brand of hair cream by a store clerk (who unfortunately doesn't carry Dapper Dan but looks as if he couldn't give a hoot either way). And, in another one of the film's few funny scenes, we see local police picking up a trail on the threesome after a bloodhound finds a tin can of Dapper Dan and a hairnet lying by a diminished fire.
The trio has escaped from jail in hopes of finding an ancient treasure not delved into by the film so very much. Along the way they meet an odd assortment of characters, including a black guitarist who sold his soul to Satan so that he could learn to play guitar; a baby-faced criminal trying to make a name for himself; and a bulky thief (John Goodman) who steels what little fortunes the men have achieved by singing on the radio under the combined name of The Soggy Bottom Boys.
Along the way they also encounter Everett's wife (Holly Hunter), who claims he was hit by a train, tells her seven children this, and refuses to acknowledge him as her husband. With the law in hot pursuit of them, the boys have only their brains to fall back on - and they don't have much of that available for use.
The plot's not the problem with the film (per se). It has fun with itself; the bluegrass music is perfect for the film and makes you feel like you're in Mississippi. The problem is the way the film has a million different ideas going on that it never seems able to make sense of. The film takes spiritual detours that pay off at the end, but nothing is ever truly resolved. In one scene towards the overdue finale, Everett gets down on his knees and prays to God to deliver them from their doom. Suddenly a gigantic tidal wave roars through and demolishes their surroundings, leaving them alive and bobbing on the water's surface.
I've read "The Odyssey," but even with all its weirdness in mind I don't remember it being this weird. It's been a while, yes, but I don't remember a giant tidal wave and I certainly don't think it belongs in a feature film with enough wasted ideas. At least "The Odyssey" was weird for a reason - "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" could certainly do without the strangeness.
Every time George Clooney is on-screen you'll be having some minimal amount of fun at least, but when he's gone and the film takes its time rooting through some unimportant sub-plots, it gets to be a real bore. It's not even two hours long but it feels like it's three.
The plus side? Depression-era Mississippi comes alive, and in some scenes the dry filming makes you thirsty for a glass of cold water. Not only that, but just as in "Fargo," the Coen Brothers are able to make us feel a sort of attachment to the characters - but even with Everett's funny infatuation with hair gel, he's not in the same league as Marge Gunderson, and he never will be.
The first time I saw this movie in 2000 (the year of its release), I absolutely hated it. Back then, perhaps I was expecting something too close to "Fargo." Maybe I just wanted something better. So with last night's repeat viewing, I made sure I wasn't expecting anything. I made sure I put away all pretensions. It still didn't impress me.
"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" does have some good parts, but for being a comedy it certainly doesn't have very many laughs, and for being a lightweight, uplifting drama it seems too caught up in darker ideas that don't need meddling with. And, apart from everything else, it's just plain weird. It's a whole lot different than "Fargo," which might sound good since change is often welcomed from director(s). But whereas M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" was different than "The Sixth Sense" in a delightfully splendid way, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is sort of like George Lucas' latest installments into the extended "Star Wars" series. They may be different, but they're definitely not any better.