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From the Coen Brothers, makers of Fargo, comes O Brother Where Art Thou?, an original comedy, based loosely on The Odyssey, and paying homage to the 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels. It’s a dense, episodic, meandering tale that finds humor in every scene.

3 Fugitives

Everett, Pete, and Delmar (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) escape from a Mississippi chain gang. Everett has some buried loot back home in a valley that’s going to be flooded in just a few days, part of Roosevelt’s depression-fighting public works programs. He convinces Pete and Delmar to help him escape so they can go dig up the money.

Everett is the leader of the bunch. He’s a dandy, both in his words and his appearance. He won’t use a short word if he can find a long one that’ll serve, and he’s very particular about his hair, insisting on only the best pomade and taking care not to mess it up while he sleeps.

Pete and Delmar are natural followers. Pete is a timid rabbit, easily frightened and agitated. Maybe it’s because he’s a little crazy that he later gets turned into a toad. Delmar is the slow-witted, gentle soul, dependent on his two adoptive big brothers for guidance.

Pete’s got kin not too far from where the chain gang was working. The fugitives follow the railroad to his place so they can remove their chains and wash up. After that, they’re going to head back to Everett’s valley somehow. Their adventurous road trip begins.

Road Odyssey

Together the three have some great adventures. After cleansing their souls at a Baptist revival, they meet a guitar player at a crossroads, name of Tommy Johnson (guitarist and first-time actor Chris Thomas King). Like real-life guitarist Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson claims to have learned to play from the devil himself by selling his soul. (“Well, I wasn’t usin’ it,” he explains). They sing for some money as the “Soggy Bottom Boys” at a radio station before hitting the road.

They run into notorious gangster Babyface Nelson (Michael Badalucco), who’s a nicer guy that you’d think. Maybe he suffers a little from bipolar disorder, but he’s a generally good fellow. And true to Homer’s own words, our heroes eventually meet a cyclops, a blind seer and singing sirens.

When they reach Everett’s home town, their driftin’ starts to gel into something like a plot. Everett meets up with his wife Penny (Holly Hunter) and seven daughters. Penny is engaged to another man because Everett’s as good as dead to her. Everett wants to find a way to make it up to her and come back home. That’s the real treasure he’s searching for — not money buried in a valley but a family and some normalcy.

Fargo 2?

The Coen Brothers are a widely respected pair of filmmakers. Perhaps their greatest acclaim came from Fargo, a film I didn’t think highly of. Those who praised Fargo often seemed deeply amused by the way Minnesotans talk, don’tchaknow. The plot itself seemed like a sordid CBS Movie of the Week, without any sense of irony. And in many ways O Brother, Where Art Thou is like Fargo.

I like the smell a my hair treatment; the pleasin’ odor’s half the point!
— George Clooney
For example, a lot of the humor comes from the way people talk. Delmar and Everett in particular use stylized, colorful hobo patter. Clooney’s goofy verbosity is one of the film’s funniest jokes. Even the names of the characters suggest a joke at the expense of the culture. Penny’s new suitor’s name is Vernon Waldrip and Pete’s family name is Hogwallop.

The easy humor is as effective here as it was in Fargo, probably more so. But it alone doesn’t make for a great movie.

Greatness Elsewhere

O Brother, Where Art Thou has some great production design (by Dennis Gassner — a production designer takes responsibility for the overall look of a movie, from sets and costumes to lighting and filmstock.) Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives the film a golden, nostalgic look to it, like a thin layer of dust on an old photograph in an afternoon sunbeam. The color is muted and faded. That look is reinforced by the costumes, sets and props, all authentic-looking but struggling with their luster and vividness through a distance of sixty-five years.

The music, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is both catchy and authentic. The heroes’ song at the radio station is technically challenging, and sung and lip-synced with enthusiasm. The song’s modality clearly sets it in another time and place — it’s not something you’d hear on a modern radio. Throughout the movie people make music and every time they do, the film’s setting seems more and more authentic. Delmar picks a banjo in the car, Pete and Tommy play a guitar around the campfire. Even the sirens’ a cappella song sounds perfect for Mississippi in the 1930s.

Sullivan’s Travels 2?

If you are familiar with The Odyssey you might get some extra enjoyment out of this movie. As I mentioned, there are Sirens and a Cyclops, just like Odysseus faced, only brought forward into the 1930s. But the connection with Sullivan’s Travels is interesting as well. The setting is nearly identical, and references to chain gangs and train accidents pay homage to Preston Sturges’ great comedy/drama.

The fictional Sullivan was a movie director in the ‘30s whose lowbrow comic successes had titles like “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and “Ants in the Pants of 1939.” But Sullivan wanted to make a serious picture about the plight of the working man, an American tragedy called O Brother, Where Art Thou.

But in the end, I have to say that comparison and analysis of O Brother is moot, because it is just a joy to sit through. It’s a funny, well made adventure. It’s not the kind of movie you have to appreciate as art because it is so much more successful as entertainment.

Sullivan eventually realized that people want lowbrow comedies, and that he can make people happiest by making that kind of film. Maybe that’s the Coen Brothers’ real homage to Sullivan’s Travels.