Now and then in school and in college, we’d see movies in class, some regarding class topics or because the movie touches on the subjects and events where learning about, and I can honestly say that there is no other movie I’ve seen more frequently in school then the 2000, Coen Brothers comedy classic “O Brother Where Art Thou?” Seriously, this film would always pop up in my history classes, literature classes, film is art classes and plenty others. Now the Coen Brothers have done some classic hit movies including “The Big Lebowski”, “Fargo”, “Blood Simple” and “No Country for Old Men”. Even though “O Brother Where Art Thou?” never reached the same critical praise as those films, it has gained a devoted fan base over the years and has become a cult classic, personally it’s my favorite of their movies.
The plot goes like this, it’s 1937, the time of “The Great Depression” and three prisoners named Pete, Delmar and Everett Ulysses McGill have just escaped a chain gang. There setting out to retrieve $1.2 Million in treasure that Everett claims to have stolen from an armored car and buried before his incarceration. Time is not on their side, they only have four days before the area in which he buried the money gets flooded. From that point on the film moves like a road trip movie, they get into one loony scenario and then they leave only to pick up and get into the next loony scenario. It’s all about the journey rather than any big twists and turns an individual character’s story might go through. Everything revolves around these silly people as they play off of all the unique things they encounter.
It may sound like a simple premise but it’s the characters that make the movie worthwhile. George Clooney plays Everett Ulysses McGill, who leads the group, he acts like an intelligent and sophisticated fellow but in reality, he’s just as dumb as the other two. Now George Clooney has always been a hit or miss actor, sometimes he can be really good in a role and other times he’s just George Clooney acting like George Clooney. Well, I can safely say that Clooney is outstanding in the role of Everett Ulysses McGill, honestly, it’s my favorite performance he’s ever done. Clooney completely looses himself in the role and is clearly having a lot of fun with it. He just livens up this character with so much charm, personality and some very quotable lines. Whenever the three get into trouble, Clooney always says “Blast, where in a tight spot!” But he delivers this line in a way that only Clooney can make it funny. Next is Pete played by John Turturro, he’s the grumpy guy of the group and the perfect guy to offset Clooney. Then at last we have Delmar played by Tim Blake Nelson. He’s the pore looser of the group, very short on intelligence but he has a big heart, he’s the kind of character that people refer to as the dumb nice guy. With their distinct personalities and individual charms, all three make a perfect comedic trio, the same way that Laurel and Hardy are a perfect comedic duo.
The story is actually a modern satire that’s loosely based on “Homer’s Odyssey”. It’s a Greek poem that centers on the hero Odysseus and his journey home after the fall of Troy. In the same way, these characters are on a journey that will take them back home after the fall of their once proud economy and along the way they encounter characters that are reminiscent of things you’d read about in Greek fantasies. They encounter a blind man traveling on a manual railroad car who claims to have no name but he can foretell their futures, that they seek great fortune and promises them that they will “find a fortune, though it will not be the one they seek”. So he’s like an ancient fortune teller or profit. There later mugged by a one-eyed man played by John Goodman, this character represents a ferocious “Cyclops”. They also encounter three women who seduce them through the power of bewitching music and good looks but it’s a ploy to drug them, and make them disappear, which is a nice little nod to the “Sirens” of Greek mythology. My favorite running joke in the movie by far is when Delmar believes that his close friend Pete has been bewitched and transformed into a toad, when he really finds Pete and discovers that he’s not transformed, it leads into a silent conversation (whispers back and forth) that results in one of the most subtle laugh out loud moments ever put into film. Then there’s this law official with a hound dog who’s tracking them down, however, he’d rather kill them on the spot rather then put the three back in prison. So he’s like a representation of “Death” (or Grim reaper) dogging at their heels. The title of the movie is a reference to the 1941 film “Sullivan’s Travels”, in which a director wants to film a fictional book about the Great Depression called “O Brother Where Art Thou?”
When the movie isn’t referencing “Homers Odyssey”, it takes full advantage of its time period. We get several different representations of how people lived and acted during the depression, including children trained to shoot down people from the bank if they approach the house. Even the look of the film makes you feel like you’re in the 1930’s, all the color is muted against bright, glaring sun light, it might just be one of the first movies to extensively use digital color correction to give the film a sepia-tinted look. The locations and sets are also fantastic to look at, putting you in the right mind set of the time. Our hero’s also come across some fact based people from this time. The craziest period based encounter of all involves a wild bank robber named George “Baby Face” Nelson. He robs banks simply for fun and shoots down cows for amusement, money doesn’t seem to matter to the guy, he just wants to make a name for himself. Unfortunately for him, he has a very childish looking face, so the only name people associate with him is “Baby Face”.
We also have a frightening encounter with the Ku Klux Klan, our three hero’s have to rescue their Negro friend from being hung at one of their rally’s. This is actually where I first learned of the KKK and I always thought of this movie when they were brought up in history class. Even though this scene doesn’t feature anything graphic and it’s not meant to be taken too seriously, it still has this genuinely unsettling feel of what a KKK rally is like. Now the scene is once again supposed to mix historical facts with a reference to “Homer’s Odyssey”, however, I can’t help but think of “The Wizard of Oz” whenever I see this. The song the Klan chants sounds almost identical to what the Wicked Witches guards were chanting. Also, our three hero’s steal clan outfits and sneak in to save their friend the same way Scarecrow, Lion and Tin-man discussed themselves as guards to rescue Dorothy. I don’t know if the Coen Brothers had “The Wizard of Oz” in mind when they wrote this scene, but it is very similar.
Speaking of historical facts from the 1930’s, the radio was the only source of joy for people back then, so we get many scenes with characters listening to radio broadcasts and period folk music. It’s an effective touch and you hear this variety of music throughout the whole picture. One of the films big highlights is when our three heroes’s put together their own little band called the “Soggy Bottom Boys” to make money at a radio station, the name is a homage to the “Foggy Mountain Boys”. My favorite scene is when the Soggy Bottom Boys get on stage and perform a number titled “Man of Constant Sorrow”, it’s just a real delight to watch.
Overall, it’s a really fun film and my favorite Coen Brother movie to date. It may not be the biggest laugh out loud comedy ever but it still really funny and the way it balances references of Greek Mythology and historical pried pieces makes it all the more unique to watch. But the big reason to watch this movie is the three main characters, there’s just a very genuine charm that comes from these three talents and it’s an instant joy watching them go from one crazy predicament to the next. I give “O Brother Where Art Thou?” 4 stars out of five.