- Rated PG-13
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by David Medsker
Brother, Where Art Thou?” may not be the funniest or wackiest movie from Joel and Ethan Coen, but it is easily their most ambitious work to date (‘to date’ meaning August 2010, for those keeping score at home). Just breaking down the individual parts is enough to make one’s head spin; Homer’s “Odyssey,” set in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression, literate but sassy, with a handful of musical numbers for flavor. If anyone but the Coens had pitched that movie, they would have been laughed out of the room. Not even Baz Luhrmann would be able to get away with a pitch that crazy.
Prisoners Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro) and the slow-witted Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) make a daring escape from their chain gang, in the hopes of hunting down a huge chunk of money Everett buried before he went to jail. Staying ahead of Johnny Law is not easy, especially in the early 1930s when everyone could use the reward for turning them in. Along the way, the three cross paths with a manic depressive bank robber, a young black blues guitarist who just sold his soul to the Devil, the most diabolical Bible salesman in history, and three beautiful sirens washing clothes by the river. They even made some quick cash by cutting a cover version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” at a radio station, which becomes a massive hit on local radio.
I haven’t read anyone else’s review for “O Brother,” but I’m betting that someone out there complained about the movie’s dialogue – or at least the rapid-fire nature of it – coming and going for stretches at a time, and that’s a fair criticism. Clooney begins and ends the movie as the chattiest Cathy who ever lived, but throughout the middle, he’s pretty much playing himself, though the accent gives him fits throughout. The lip syncing by the three leads is, well, ridiculous, but that appears to be the point. It’s on the beat, but there is no way that those voices are coming from those bodies. They’re remarkably well choreographed for a ragtag trio of escaped convicts, though.
On the surface, it would appear that the closest movie in spirit to “O Brother” in the Coen brothers canon is “A Serious Man,” since both are based on classic pieces of literature, but in truth, “Brother” is a grander, nuttier version of “Raising Arizona.” Both movies have a deliriously wiseass sense of humor (witness the whole “bona fide” conversation). Both leads are ex-cons trying to atone for their mistakes, both are hunted mercilessly by terrifying authority figures, and both are in love with Holly Hunter, who recalls her Ed McDunnough character here as if the 13 years between “Arizona” and “Brother” never happened. Not coincidentally, she steals every scene she’s in.
The Coen brothers have made better movies than “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” but they haven’t made bigger ones than this, and it seems unlikely that they ever will. To outdo the spectacle that’s on display here would require setting a movie in space, and it’s fairly safe to say that that is simply not going to happen. Not while they’re alive, anyway. Please, please tell us there is a ‘no remakes in space’ clause in their wills. Because that would just be sad for all concerned.