I give up. The Coen Brothers win.
O Brother, Where Art Thou is their latest and greatest effort. It’s a movie that tries to do many
things, and does them unevenly. The script is wretched enough in spots to make your average Gomer Pyle episode look like Anna Karenina, but from a comparative-lit perspective, it’s hard to dislike any movie that claims to be based on The Odyssey. The cinematography and the set design and the locations are all sublime and cannot be improved upon. The casting veers from the apt (George Clooney as the wily hero) to the blatantly obvious (Charles Durning as the downhome governor) to the downright weird (John Turturro as an escapee from a chain gang). The musical choices range from the overwhelming (if this movie gets Alison Krauss back on country radio, the whole effort would have been more than worthwhile) to the occasionally annoying. And while the acting is generally effective — especially Holly Hunter in a small but effective turn as Clooney’s no-nonsense wife — the characters are all two-dimensional, drifting in and out of the movie from either Southern or Greek mythology, take your pick.
All of those things are true, but none of them describes the movie, or even comes close. There is something about O Brother, Where Art Thou that is impervious to analysis, and I suspect that’s the way that the Coen Brothers like it. There’s always a line in every Coen Brothers project that separates their excellent creative work from their propensity to turn every movie into a practical joke, and that line has never been fuzzier than here. Are the Coens trying to say something about the human condition, or is everything we see just a big, expensive sight gag? Is this movie a subtle meditation on mythology or a chance for the Coens to showcase their latent love of bluegrass music? Is the plot pointless to show the pointlessness of all road movies, or merely to expose the gullibility of the audience? I don’t know, and won’t waste time trying to guess. The Coen Brothers win.
I can’t talk about this movie in even the simplest critical terms. Is this a “bad” movie? Yes, but how many bad movies have mesmerizingly unforgettable scenes like the song of the Southern sirens? Is it a “good” movie? How can any movie that features John Turturro yodeling be any good? (Hank Williams is turning over in his grave, I just know it.)
Do I “recommend” this movie? That’s what they called a “facts and circumstances issue” in law school. Anyone who can read Homer in the original Greek hexameters should stay away; at best you’ll hate the movie, at worst you’ll bore your friends by pointing out all the buried allusions. My fellow Southern Baptists should attend; there’s an ethereal and deeply respectful treatment of our tradition of baptism by immersion. Anyone who thinks that Shania Twain or Faith Hill are “country” singers should stick to their knitting, if they know how to knit. The George Clooney Fan Club is welcome. Most subscribers to Southern Living (and all subscribers to Southern Partisan)should only attend if they’ve taken their blood pressure medicine recently. Most of the slack-jawed teenage moviegoing public should stay away, except for those folks dressed up in black who call themselves “Goths”. (I’ve got news for you kids; y’all need to head South if you want to know what real Gothic stuff is. There’s more dark and grotesque stuff going on at your average Southern family reunion than in anything Anne Rice ever wrote.)
The scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou that will have everyone talking involves a Ku Klux Klan rally, and it’s obligatory in reviewing the movie to compare that scene to Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, while comparing it to something out of an old Hollywood musical. (Although, for my money, it resembles nothing more than the episode of The Simpsons featuring the “Stonecutters”.) And if you say about that scene, and the movie, that it is Frederic Nietzche meets Busby Berkeley, you may be on to something. O Brother, Where Art Thou is beyond good and evil, but it has a good beat, and you can dance to it.
That last paragraph didn’t make a lick of sense, did it.
I give up.
The Coen Brothers win.