Monday 17 July 2017

Movie Review: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

A satirical comedy inspired by Homer's The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? features some enjoyable episodes but is a mostly fragmented exercise of scattered ideas looking for a purpose.

The setting is Mississippi during the 1930s with the Great Depression still lingering. Three convicts escape from a chain gang and set out across the countryside. The wordy and cerebral Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) claims to have buried stolen treasure before being incarcerated. His fellow escapees are the tightly wound Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and the rather dim Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson).

As they barely stay one step ahead of the chasing posse, the trio encounter various obstacles and characters, including Pete's cousin "Wash" Hogwallop (Frank Collison), crazed bank robber Baby Face Nelson (Michael Badalucco), three distracting singing sirens, guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who claims to have sold his soul to the devil, incumbent Governor Menelaus "Pappy" O'Daniel (Charles Durning), and dangerous Bible salesman Daniel "Big Dan" Teague (John Goodman). The Ku Klux Klan also make an appearance before Ulysses catches up with his wife Penny (Holly Hunter), who is just about ready to abandon him.

Written and directed by the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan, O Brother, Where Art Thou? transposes the ancient Greek poem to the American rural south, suffering under the strain of an economic depression and the sweltering heat. It's all played for laughs, the actors over-emoting at will and most of the dialogue exchanges featuring Ulysses Everett McGill's over-elaborate prose and the stupefied reactions of his chainmates.

The film's pacing cannot be faulted, as each episode lasts about 10 minutes before the next, generally unrelated adventure kicks off. Whether hit or miss, nothing lingers for too long. The better sub-plots feature the trio of prisoners recording an impromptu hit song at an early-era radio station, and an enchanted encounter with the seductive sirens in the forest. Less successful is the run-in with Bible salesman Big Dan, while the chapters featuring Governor O'Daniel seem to rotate in a singular circle.

Wide open landscapes, appealing cinematography and an interesting colour palette that often evokes the photographs of the era maintain interest, while the period-specific folk music often moves to the foreground to provide a soulful kick.

Towards the end the film threatens to completely unravel, a case of too many marginal ideas thrown at the screen and sliding to the bottom due to a lack of cohesion. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is inspired by great literature, but achieves only modest success.

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