April 7, 2015

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Grade: 65/100

Director: Joel Coen
Stars: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson

What it's about. A semi-surreal comedy set in the South during the Great Depression. Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) are escaped chain-gang prisoners. They're on the run, and in search of purported buried treasure.

Along the way, they briefly encounter black guitarist Tommy (Chris Thomas King), and record a record as The Soggy Bottom Boys. It is broadcast over the air and makes them stars, but they are unaware of this as they remain itinerant fugitives.

The trio also meet John Goodman, a Bible salesman who tries to rob them; lunatic bank robber "Babyface" Nelson (Michael Badalucco); and Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning), the elderly state governor who is losing his race for re-election. Because the movie is vaguely based on Homer's epic poem "The Odyssey", our three leads meet up with three hot-to-trot sirens, who capture Pete but, for some reason, allow Everett and Delmar to retain their freedom.

Everett's plan, aside from emptying stores of his brand of pomade, is to locate his estranged ex-wife Penny (Holly Hunter) before she can marry political consultant Waldrip (Ray McKinnon). Everett and Penny have a slew of young daughters, each more adorable than the other.

How others will see it. Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have been making films together for decades now, and they are good at it. Generally, they have made quirky comedies, but have ventured into more grim material (Fargo, No Country For Old Men). O Brother, Where Art Thou? is more like Raising Arizona, but with a musical angle uncharacteristic of the Coens. Indeed, the soundtrack album was a greater commercial success than the film, and topped the Billboard charts more than a year after the movie's release.

Considering that moviestar George Clooney played the lead, the box office was underwhelming. But both the screenplay and cinematography received nominations at the Academy Awards and BAFTA. Today at imdb.com, the user votes approach 200K, and the high user rating of 7.8 suggests most viewers are charmed.

How I felt about it. The cultural return to Carter Family country music, even if only briefly, is one reason to enjoy this movie. Tim Blake Nelson, as the simpleton Delmar, is another. The Coen Brothers films vary in quality, as one might expect, but most are good, and the present feature is no exception.

The film makes a nod to Sullivan's Travels, which also has a chain-gang brought into a theater to see a movie. We also get to see many of our favorite stars from previous Coen brothers movies show up in supporting roles. Holly Hunter, in particular, plays a character as headstrong as she was in Raising Arizona.

From the perspective of plot, it seems unlikely that the Soggy Bottom Boys, Pappy O'Daniel, his political opponent, Waldrip, and Penny would all be in the same place at the same time, and that the Soggy Bottom Boys, no matter how popular, would elicit a blanket pardon from the governor, who knows nothing about them. Although he does seem desperate.

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