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'O Brother': Ulysses On a Wacky Romp Through the South

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2000


    O Brother, Where Art Thou? John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson and George Clooney are three stooges in a Sturges homage in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
(Melinda Sue Gordon/Touchstone Pictures)
Brother, can you spare a dime? Well, here's some friendly advice: Take it and 84 more, and invest them in a couple of hours of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" from those whacked-out, zany Coen brothers. Danged if they haven't done it again.

Done what again?

Well, of that I'm not exactly sure. But they certainly have done something.

The movie is just what it is and no other thing. Is it a version of "The Odyssey"? Well, sort of, but by fellows who probably only read the Classic Comic Book to get through World Lit freshman year. Is it a genially constructed tour of Mississippi during the Great Depression, when nobody could spare a dime? Well, yes, but at the same time it's short on the standard Walker Evans tragic proletariat line of indignation and long on the these-peoples-be-crazy thing.

Is it a homage to the colorful picaresques of Preston Sturges, particularly "Sullivan's Travels," in which a director of silly comedies takes to the road in search of the real America, with hopes of making a significant movie called "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" How could it not be?

Is the movie good?

Again: beats me.

It it forgettable?

That one I can answer: not ever, not now, not next week, not never.

It's a new new thing, classic myth from both literature and the movies, commingled, set to great folk music, and untrammeled by any sense of predictability, urgency, realism or believability but hypnotic, graceful and seductive. You never think it's only a movie, because it's always a movie -- but never the same movie twice.

With apologies, I suppose, to Mervyn LeRoy's great old "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang," it begins with a rather leisurely escape from one of those human charm bracelets breaking rocks next to a dusty Mississippi road sometime in the mid-'30s. Our "heroes" are Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), the snarly buckra Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and the sweetly innocent Delmar O'Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), who make a getaway that seems far easier than the one Ulysses himself made from the ashes of Troy. These boys didn't have to hide in a horse, then burn a city to get loose; they just have to tiptoe through the okra.

The movie features their flight under the leadership of Clooney's Ulysses, a comical commanding officer who is less cunning, less smart, less charismatic and vainer than the original (you know, the one played by Kirk Douglas in 1954). When he's not slicking back his locks with Dapper Dan hair pomade or admiring the pencil-line precision of his Smilin' Jack mustache or squeezing nine-dollar words out of his 50-cent brain, he continually thinks he has it all figured out. Reality has a way of clobbering these boys as a way of teaching Ulysses the truth about himself, although of course he never notices.

In other words, the movie has but one joke, though it's a funny one and delivered in a number of tones and circumstances: Its heroes are morons but such good-hearted morons that things keep turning out okay for them because, presumably, up there behind Apollo's winged chariot, old man Zeus wants a laugh today.

The three, united by the steel that connects them and then by the bonds of emotion, are nominally in pursuit of a treasure Ulysses has hidden. Of course that's a thin subterfuge; like his antecedent, Clooney's Mr. U is hastening home to prevent his ex-wife Penny (as in Penelope, and in this case as in Holly Hunter) from marrying a suitor. A suitor in a suit, actually.

The boys find themselves in situations or adventures that roughly parallel Homer's original, but in offbeat ways. Besides Penelope waiting at home, there's a cyclops, a huge glob of man played with psychotic zeal by a 900-pound John Goodman in an eye patch.

Or, in one thoroughly magical sequence, they are waylaid by sirens in the river -- that would be Circe and her gals -- though the thing really makes no sense at all. Still, it's so visually exquisite and seductive (particularly with the voices of Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch on the soundtrack) that you just want it to go on and on.

Whether this is defect or stroke of genius I am uncertain, but the Coens (Joel directs, Ethan produces, they both write) can never make up their minds how rigorously to follow the myth. They go to great lengths to set up these parallels, then usually wander away from them.

At the same time, they will throw in oddities related not to ancient culture but to the culture of the '30s, and I can think of no unified theory by which to explain those decisions. Perhaps there is no unified theory. Babyface Nelson (played by Michael Badalucco, of "The Practice") blasts into the movie, tommy guns blazing, dim-bulb mentality on full display, disdain for consequences and death a huge part of his charm, and just as quickly disappears. Why? I have no idea.

There's a too-elaborate subplot about an election, in which the boys get engulfed inadvertently, as a comical Gov. Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning) fights to retain his incumbency against a reformer named Vernon T. Waldrip (Ray McKinnon) who favors the little man and even has an actual tiny man on the stump with him.

Waldrip is a secret racist, which leads the boys to a Klan rally that's filmed as a parody of the marching, singing, beefeater hat-wearing guard platoon outside the witch's castle in "The Wizard of Oz." But we're not in Oz, or even Kansas; we're still in Mississippi.

And somehow a record made by the three boys in a one-horse radio station in the cotton fields figures significantly in the action.

This is one of those films that ultimately comes to feel like a fortune-cookie aphorism given flesh and weight: Little grasshopper, the journey is the destination. That is to say, just going along is the fun; when you get there, you're really not anywhere and you wonder why you are there instead of some other place. But you've had such a good time drifting along the eddies and currents and backwashes of the film that you can't hold the time you invested against the filmmakers. Those would be 85 dimes well spent.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (106 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mild violence.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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