Reel Talk

The Cartoony Beauty of O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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So for my birthday yesterday my wife and I went to a screening of one of my favorite movies, O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s amazing, and after seeing it on the big screen, I just had to ramble about it. I love the Coen Brothers. Their films are all brilliant. I even love ones like Ladykillers and Hudsucker Proxy, their less popular movies. Their writing and directing are just perfect, creating some of the most memorable movies I’ve ever seen. And while I love when the Coen’s do drama, like True Grit or No Country for Old Men, I’m more partial to their stranger, more comedic films. When the Coen’s do comedy, they do it amazingly. They’re weird, almost surreal movies, full of homages and brilliant dialogue. It’s pretty clear and Joel and Ethan are huge film geeks, and are making the kind of movies they want to make, no matter how odd they may seem. And O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of their greatest. The movie is a fantastic combination of mythologies. It takes the basic elements from Homer’s The Odyssey and elements of American mythology and 1930’s Americana, and sticks them together in an amazingly successful blend. The movie is trademark Coen zaniness, with very strange ideas and visuals matched up in a beautiful way. The Coen movies are set in reality, yet allow some rather strange scenes and gags that most movies wouldn’t allow. It’s like occasionally they slip in scenes that act like a live-action cartoon. It’s their ability to toss surreal scenes into an otherwise straight comedy that makes me love these guys.

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George Clooney, as he usually is in Coen brother movies, plays an egotistical, obnoxious, but still loveable loser. He plays Ulysses Everett McGill, a con artist who manages to escape a chain gang with the help of the bumbling Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Tuturro), promising them hidden treasure if they help him get back to his hometown as fast as possible. This begins the retelling of the Odyssey through rural Mississippi. Nothing about the homage is particularly subtle, having Clooney named Ulysses is one of the more obvious aspects, but it still works. It doesn’t need to be subtle, because it’s the setting that’s the real draw for this movie. Characters and scenes from the Odyssey are very cleverly added into the world the Coen’s create in this movie. There’s the beautiful women at the river who double as the Sirens and Circe, after Ulysses and Delmar mistakenly believe they turned Pete into a toad. The religious congregation heading off to get baptized that become the Lotus Eaters. Ulysses’ wife having left him and begun courting a new suitor is taken right out of Penelope’s pressure to gain a new husband after Odysseus has been gone for so long. And of course there’s John Goodman playing the role of the cyclopes as a one eyes con-man/bible salesman who pops up occasionally to give the characters troubles.

But beyond the Greek mythology, the movie also manages to bring in a bit of American history and myth to the film, creating an interesting mixture. You have the guitarist Tommy Johnson, a real life bluesman from the era, who sells his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for guitar skill. The real Johnson claimed to have done the same thing, and when Ulysses and crew find him, they too become hunted by the Devil. They also come across Baby Face Nelson, a real 30’s bank robber, in the course of their journeys, adding more history to the movie.

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But as great at the plot is, it’s the acting and directing that really make this movie. Everyone is fantastic in it, getting down their simple, country characters perfectly. Clooney is a liar, a scoundrel, and just a downright lousy guy, but you can’t help but love him through the entire movie. He’s one of the most charismatic characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. Nelson and Tuturro also give great performances, really making their simpleton characters seem realistic and fleshed out. The supporting characters are fantastic too, all with their own unique and believable personalities and motivations. John Goodman is truly menacing, Charles Durning is fantastic as the slimy and corrupt governor, and Daniel von Bargen is great as the sheriff, possible Devil. The music in this film is amazing too. T-Bone Burnett got an Oscar for this soundtrack, and with good reason. A mix of modern singers rerecording classic Americana songs, and original recordings of classic folk and country songs, the soundtrack really help transport the viewer back to the 30’s, to this simple, yet bizarre world these characters inhabit. The film’s version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” is simply amazing, and has become the theme of the movie. But one of the greatest parts of this movie is the way it looks. The Coen’s color corrected this movie to have a sort of washed out, sepia tone throughout, that not only makes it look like something out of the 30’s, but gives it a drab, unhappy feel that the Depression era seems to always bring about. All of these aspects combine to create one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and a personal favorite.

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O Brother, Where Art Thou? was written by Joel and Ethan Coen and was directed by Joel Coen.

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