Long ago, the Brothers Coen set a high bar for evolving eccentricity. Their films hopped from genre to genre, with defiant wackiness serving as the only true constant. Even with that foreknowledge, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? stands out as an odd duck. On paper, the notion of a Depression-era rebrand of Homer’s Odyssey might come across as unforgivably pretentious–the moment when celebrated Coens finally become ensorcelled by their own hype.
And yet, dadgumit, Brother finds a way to work. The plot doesn’t move so much as it drifts, from one loony vignette to the next. We open on three fugitives from a chain gain, still shackled at the ankles and waddling across a bean field. The Coens often populate their films with gibbering blockheads, but this trio might be la créme: Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) is the group’s chatty, hyperactive leader. He guides the group in a search for buried treasure–and some decent pomade. Pete (John Turturro) is temperamental, while Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) is a moron with a gentle heart.
The boys’ journey will take them across the mythology of the Great Depression. That means we’ll see hobos on the rails, Klansmen with torches, and paunchy politicians looking to bilk their constituents out of every dime and acre they have. For good measure, the Coens chuck in a bluesman (Chris Thomas King) who sold his soul (a la Robert Johnson), and a cackling, volatile Babyface Nelson (Michael Badalucco), who sprays a field of lowing Holsteins with his Tommy gun.
Actually, those two characters perfectly demonstrate the movie’s overall formula: Instead of a fully coherent story, Brother lets a gallery of weirdo characters propel it forward. Those include a one-eyed bible salesman (John Goodman), three silky-voiced sirens (Mia Tate, Musetta Vander, and Christy Taylor), and a cheerfully racist radioman (Stephen Root). The latter gives the boys what might be their big break, singing a twangy rendition of Dick Burnett’s “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
That song reveals Brother‘s other pocket ace: T Bone Burnett’s brilliant soundtrack, which alternates between bouncy folk standards like “Keep on the Sunny Side” and the lean, lonely blues of the Mississippi Delta. (King’s barren, acoustic take on “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” is a particular standout.) Much like The Bodyguard and Dirty Dancing before it, Brother’s songscape took on a pop culture life of its own. I’ll wager that even if this movie doesn’t grab you, there’s a good chance the music will.
With that said, this is an infectiously silly movie, and it’s hard not to surrender to its quirky charms. All three leads contribute to that vibe with big, broad performances. As the vain, fast-talking Everett, Clooney is nothing short of a revelation. Several movies into his burgeoning movie career, Clooney finally looks comfortable letting loose and making bold choices. Meanwhile, Turturro has forged an entire career of bravura work, so his histrionic, deep-voiced turn as Pete is reliably amazing. And there’s Nelson, who damn near walks away with the entire movie, playing Delmar as an endearing, wild-eyed doofus.
Attention also must be paid to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose résumé includes fifteen Oscar nominations. Deakins works with the Coens to maneuver the look of Brother somewhere between an old newsreel and a moonshine-fueled fever dream. Some scenes get soaked in sepia sunshine, while others receive otherworldly CGI skies. The result is a visually unique film, and Deakins probably should’ve won another Oscar for it.
All this adds up to a humorous, ambling cinematic experience. Like Lebowski before it, O Brother, Where Art Thou has gained esteem over the years. As with many Coen films, this one will reward multiple viewings with new insights into its sheer wackiness. After all, it’s a lot of work to be this weird.
102 min. PG-13. Hulu.