"O Brother, Where Art Thou"
Homer's "The Odyssey" is pretty heavy stuff. In it, King Odysseus leaves his sovereign country and his wife Penelope to fight in ancient Greece's Trojan Wars. Winning the war, he incurs the wrath of the gods who set incredible obstacles in his path as he journeys across the seas and through hell itself to return home. He encounters the deadly Medusa, Circe, Poseidon, the magnetic Sirens, Cyclops and monsters many before he reaches his shores. But, after all this time, suitors for Penelope's hand in marriage have all but convinced her that he is dead. He returns none too soon.
In what is, perhaps, a trademark bit of imaginative brazenness with classic material, the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, call their latest bit of serio-stylized comedy "based on Homer's Odyssey" and name their lead character, Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney). As for the parallels to the classic drama, they're there for you to find as McGill leads his merry band of chain-gang escapees down the dusty depression roads to a promised land of good will and fortune (where he'll finally find Penny Wharvey, his soon-to-be remarried wife (Holly Hunter) and three kids who sing classic country like angels from a Carter Family heaven.
McGill's trusted followers Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O'Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson, Pvt. Tillis in "The Thin Red Line") are not necessarily willing participants since they're chained together for the first few miles of their journey. But, when released from their physical tie, they remain together on a quest for McGill's hidden fortune.
Their journey gets off to a start with a blind railroad cart driver giving them a lift along with a psychic glimpse of their future. Along the way, they deal with a sibling's betrayal, hardships, sexy sirens, one-eyed Big Dan Teague (a cyclopian John Goodman), political chicanery, a threat by the Ku Klux Klan, the energetic gangster George "Babyface" Nelson ("The Practice's Michael Badalucco) who goes postal when anyone calls him "Babyface" and, of course, that unfaithful wife. They also discover their own singing talents as "The Soggy Bottom Boys".
It's all fanciful exaggeration as only the Coens can pull off, a creative adventure in stylized and stylish storytelling starting with an extraordinarily well chosen casting for the assortment of characters they came up with. We haven't seen this kind of parade since Fellini.
In what may be the sound track album of the year, the traditional country music and Delta blues is nothing less than outstanding for those with a taste for this musical treasure chest. Artists include Emmylou Harris ("Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby"), Sarah, Hannah & Leah Peasall (the brilliant, bubbly, "In the Highways"), John Hartford, Tim Blake Nelson, The Stanley Brothers and more. What a CD!
George Clooney comes off strong in his role as the leader of the motley crew -- for George Clooney. But, what seems to be missing in this comedic gem is a lead actor whose personality is bigger than the part he's playing, adding a layer of "character" on the role. The young Lee Marvin and James Coburn come to mind as examples. Clooney, while charming and handsome, leads us with what's on the written page, but not an inch beyond.
John Turturro and Holly Hunter are their usual standouts while John Goodman is John Goodman, satisfying his fans. The surprise is a little known Tim Blake Nelson whose underplaying as the feeble genius of the trio, reminding us of Stan Laurel, is about as fresh and delicious as casting and writing get.
I'd say there's a win or two in this for the Coen brothers' screenplay and score, if not in other deserving categories. If there were a special category for comedies, this is the winner of the year.
Estimated cost: $26,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $38,000,000.
Rated F, for Funny as all get out.