Filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen live in an interesting little world. It’s a world where everyone, even the one-line characters, has a distinctive face and an unmistakably Coen method of deadpan delivery. It’s a world where dialogue that is unimpressive when spoken once becomes hysterically funny when repeated a few times. It’s a world where you shouldn’t be surprised to hear people at the bottom of the socio-political ladder speaking in erudite language and using the most imaginative sentence constructions.
The Coens, who co-write and co-direct their films (though only Joel is officially credited in the latter capacity), are also extremely divisive. In my opinion, “The Hudsucker Proxy” is every bit as funny as “Raising Arizona,” yet there are many who don’t like it at all. I consider “Fargo” overrated and largely unamusing, but legions of people disagree — and many of those people don’t like “Raising Arizona” at all.
Whatever your opinions on their previous films, it can be said with some degree of objectivity that their latest, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” hearkens back to “Raising Arizona” in tone and style. Both films feature outlaws from the South with grand schemes; both have John Goodman and Holly Hunter; and both are marked by controlled, deliberate zaniness, a feeling of pandemonium as constructed by two careful, highly intelligent filmmakers.
Set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, “O Brother” focuses on three escaped convicts: Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), a fast-talking, well-spoken man obsessed with his hair; Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), a rather ordinary criminal; and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), a complete idiot. They’ve escaped in order to retrieve a huge stash of money Everett hid before his capture, money that will be gone forever in a few days when a new dam is finished and the valley it’s buried in is flooded.
In order to get some money, they stumble into a radio station and cut a record. They head out on the lam again immediately, unaware that their record has become a verifiable hit. They also run afoul of a one-eyed swindler (John Goodman), three “sirens” who apparently turn Pete into a frog, and occasionally the local law enforcement.
Meanwhile, there’s a bombastic fathead of a governor named Pappy O’Daniel (Charles Durning), up for re-election and losing to newcomer Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall), who has a well-run campaign, utilizing a midget and a broom to convey that he’s a friend to “the little man,” and that he wants to make “sweeping” reforms.
There’s also malicious criminal Babyface Nelson (Michael Badalucco) and a talented bluegrass guitar player (Chris Thomas King) who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.
What do the election, Babyface or the devil have to do with anything? The great thing is that they’re irrelevant (and just funny) for a long time, becoming important in a pleasant little way as things progress. The plot is fantastically imaginative but unobtrusive. Rather than focusing on surprises or twists, it satisfies just by being original and loopy. We’re inclined to think that Delmar’s theory about Pete being turned into a frog is incorrect because it’s so absurd, but as time goes on, it starts to seem like that’s actually what happened — and we’re OK with that. The movie has taken us for such a joyful wild goose chase that we’re inclined to believe anything it tells us.
Clooney, Nelson and Turturro are outstanding as the leads, each memorably funny in his own right and thoroughly entertaining as a trio, too. There is palpable disappointment anytime the three are split up.
The film claims to be based on Homer’s “The Odyssey,” but remember these are the same guys who said “Fargo” was based on a true story, too. Elements of “The Odyssey” pop up — John Goodman’s “Cyclops,” the names of Ulysses and Penny (Penelope, played by Holly Hunter), and a man’s wife marrying someone else while he’s away — but the film more strongly resembles Preston Sturgis’s 1940s classic “Sullivan’s Travels” (whence comes the title “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). It even more strongly resembles a crazy delusional fantasy as conjured by an English professor.
While the movie is as light-hearted as you please, it has a few moments of darkness, too. The entire thing is filmed in washed-out Dust Bowl colors, the bleakness contrasting the good humor — except when situations grow tense and the movie turns, if not entirely serious, at least weirdly moody. I can’t say I found these moments to be entirely effective, but I can say that as a whole, I haven’t just sat and enjoyed myself in a movie this much in quite some time. You might disagree; just don’t try to tell me “Raising Arizona” isn’t funny, because I won’t listen.
A (; )