Homer's where the heart is

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (12) | Directors: Joel And Ethan Coen | Starring: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman | 107 Mins
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The Big Picture

The Big Picture

Like most things in a Coen brothers movie, the gospel-tinged title O Brother, Where Art Thou? is actually a reference to another film. In Preston Sturges' great Sullivan's Travels (1941), a Hollywood director, disgusted with the studio's desire for trivial pap, decides to make a social-conscience film about the rural poor. He goes out into the Depression-hit sticks to research the picture, finds himself wrongly convicted and forced to slave on a prison farm, and finally learns the value of mass entertainment. His movie, called "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", never gets made.

Which is where the Coens come in. A pair of cultural magpies, the brothers have revived Sullivan's title and parlayed it into a Depression-era road comedy-cum-bluegrass musical, probably not the film the original director had in mind, but then it's not the film anyone else could have had in mind either. The restless invention of the Coens' style, their pop-culture eclecticism and screwy comedy, are very much sui generis and will always guarantee them a cult following. Whether they hanker for anything beyond that is uncertain, though this film suggests they're not averse to wooing a broader constituency than usual.

It's a tale of three cons and a roundabout journey. In late Thirties Mississippi, Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) escapes from a chain gang and, because they're shackled together by the ankle, takes the half-witted Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and the brooding Pete (John Turturro) with him. Sleeping rough and ever aware of the law close behind them, the trio make for the buried treasure Everett has spoken of. But they are constantly thrown off course by perils, digressions and a host of other wayfarers.

The film, while not exactly a fantasy, stands at a slight angle to realism, evidenced first in Roger Deakins's beautiful hand-tinted cinematography and second in its haphazard episodic structure, allegedly based on Homer's Odyssey. The only references I spotted were the intrusion of Cyclops in the shape of John Goodman's treacherous one-eyed Bible salesman, and the Sirens, who have more success in seducing the hero than in the poem, in which Ulysses escapes their fatal allure by tying himself to the ship's mast.

Most of the character-drawing has gone into Clooney's Everett, a loquacious chancer who's vain about his hair: only Dapper Dan pomade will do for his precious locks. At one point he asks a morose farmer who's given them shelter: "I suppose it would be the acme of foolishness to inquire if you had a hairnet?" Surprisingly, his host can oblige. Clooney's not a bad comedian, though his elaborate mock-heroic diction isn't quite as funny as the Coens seem to believe. In the case of Turturro's character, there isn't a great deal going on; his main purpose is to complain about Everett's appointing himself leader of the group. As Delmar, Tim Blake Nelson hasn't much to do either, but he doesn't need to - his permanent expression of slack-jawed gormlessness is somehow riveting all by itself. (As a friend remarked, he's close kin of The Fast Show's Mark Williams).

One of the fellow travellers they encounter is a Delta bluesman named Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), whose guitar playing encourages Everett and co to make an impromptu recording under the name of the Soggy Bottom Boys. The tune they perform, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow", lifts the film into another dimension, almost shakes it awake; indeed, the mixture of blues, gospel and country (superbly arranged by T-Bone Burnett) is the real glory of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, because it keeps the momentum rolling when the second half goes sluggish.

One gets the feeling that the Coens enjoy doing set-pieces but are either bored or impatient with the idea of stringing them into a story; at one point, Everett remarks that it's been a year since they escaped, and you have to wonder - what the hell have they been doing? Going round in circles would seem to be the answer. It transpires that Everett's real purpose is not to recover buried loot - there isn't any - but to get back to his wife, Penny (Holly Hunter), and their brood of daughters. This, one assumes, will be the emotional core of the film and an apt parallel to Ulysses returning to rescue his wife Penelope from her suitors.

Yet it's a terrible disappointment, because the Coens treat the reunion with something close to indifference. Instead of elevating Everett's struggle, they pit him against a no-account twit and humiliate them both. At the crunch moment, when the trust we've put in the characters could be vindicated, the film takes cover first in vagueness, then in miracle-working. Sadly, it confirmed my deepest suspicions about the brothers' films; aside from Fargo, one never gets the feeling that anything is at stake. Is it just too uncool to look for meaning inside their extravagant formal conceits and elaborate jests? If it is, why be so painstaking in the construction of them?

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an affable entertainment as far as it goes, but in terms of theme and story that isn't very far at all. Great comic film-makers enlarge our view of the world; the Coens have no ambition beyond poking fun at it. Watching this latest provokes the same old responses. One often thinks, "How clever," but hardly ever, "How true."

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