Joel and Ethan Coen have carved out an admirable career by making films distinctly their own. They come with quirky characters in ridiculous situations that might be called haunting (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink), playful (The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski), or both (Raising Arizona, Fargo). With broad characterizations and hyper-regionalized dialogue, the Coens have made heroes of Midwestern yokels and drawling thugs, and given their actors the liberty to overact with abandon. What’s more, in all their films, the brothers have taken familiar Hollywood genres—the thriller, crime film, detective mystery, road movie, and romantic comedy—and spun them into wholly original and unpredictable yarns.
The basic idea for O Brother, Where Art Thou? seems ideally suited for the Coens’ oeuvre, combining and fiddling with elements of various genres. It’s a Depression-era musical laid on top of a chain gang escape film, inspired at once by Homer’s The Odyssey and Preston Sturges’ screwball comedies. But outrageous as it might seem, this ultra-high-concept project suffers from a lack of inspiration.
The plot follows Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), an inmate who talks his chain gang partners, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), into fleeing with him, by promising to lead them to buried riches (the spoils of his last job). On the way to their destination, the convicts encounter a blind guitarist named Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who has sold his soul to the devil; bank robber George “Babyface” Nelson (Michael Badalucco), who proves to be surprisingly insecure; the Governor of Mississippi (Charles Durning), in the midst of campaigning for reelection; a shifty one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman); and a trio of Sirens (Mia Tate, Christy Taylor, Musetta Vander), whom the weary men stumble upon as the women are washing themselves in a river. As this brief list of encounters suggests, a lot happens in the film, but the ideas seem half-baked at best, and the gags are the flattest in any of the Coens’ films. For instances, Ulysses obsesses about maintaining his hair just so (by way of pomade, hairnets, and constant combing), Delmar believes the Sirens have turned Pete into a toad, and the Ku Klux Klan performs a dance routine. More akin to a high school color-guard routine than a full-blown Busby Berkeley dance extravaganza, the KKK sequence never breaks totally free of realism into fantasy. This could be what the Klan does, making the scene both uncomfortable to watch and comedically flat because the KKK is an obvious target for satire and because the staging misses the utterly preposterous quality of the musical dream sequences in Hudsucker and Lebowski.
The new film does have some fine moments. In one lovely, almost surreal scene, a rather large congregation, all dressed in white and on their way to participate in a group baptism, passes the dumbfounded boys in a forest. During a recording session, the convicts, under the guise of The Soggy Bottom Boys, unexpectedly display musical talent when they cut a record—“Man of Constant Sorrows”—that later becomes a smash hit. And later, a performance of that song at a fundraiser for the Governor, leads to a moment when all the strands of the seemingly meandering plot—including The Soggy Bottom Boys’ musical promise, the gubernatorial election, Ulysses’s pleas for his wife’s affection, and the KKK—astonishingly come together. But the film, essentially a road movie, isn’t as much fun along the way as such old gems as Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story or Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. Notably, the element of romance is all but missing from the film, which creates a major distinction between those great old films and this one. Then again, romance has always been marginal in the Coens’ plots full of scheming murderers, kidnappers, double-crossers, and thieves.
Like the majority of the situations in O Brother, none of the roles really pop. Pete and Delmar are underwritten as dimwits, and flatly played by Turturro and Nelson. In the central role, Clooney, so charismatic in Out of Sight, Three Kings, and The Perfect Storm, never quite lets loose as a comedian; his forced delivery always seems a touch stiff. One of the greatest joys in the Coens’ films have been the mannered, outrageous characterizations, from Arizona‘s baby-mad couple, Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, to Fargo‘s oh-so-Minnesotan Frances McDormand. Here the characterizations are modestly playful at best. Even the Coens’ underrated Hudsucker and Lebowski demonstrate a wildly imaginative collaboration gone hog-wild in putting something outrageous—even nonsensical—onscreen. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is certainly offbeat, but it lacks the outlandishness of the filmmakers’ better work.