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'Brother': Can You Spare a Plot?

By Desson Howe
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)
You have to hand it to the brothers Coen – that would be director-writer Joel and producer-writer Ethan. Only they would have the originality to pay dual tribute to Preston Sturges and the classical Greek poet, Homer.

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?," their new movie starring George Clooney and some of the usual suspects (John Goodman, Holly Hunter, John Turturro), has such a great scheme going, you're desperate to mentally urge it along. But a movie really shouldn't need this kind of help.

As a Coen brothers fan I hate to say this, but the movie's a collection of great bits and pieces rather than a complete work. It's a series of sketches but not the painting. It's a blueprint but not the building. It's God's way of saying you can't pitch a perfect game every time.

The title comes from Sturges's great movie, the 1941 "Sullivan's Travels," in which a filmmaker (played by Joel McCrea) decides to draw inspiration for his next film from the "real world" and sets out with only ten cents in his pocket. He plans to call that movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Now, as you know from your mythological studies, Homer's "Odyssey" is about the ten years of bizarre adventures endured by Greek warrior Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) as he journeys home to his wife Penelope after the Trojan War.

Here's how that stuff plays out in "Brother": In Mississippi, during the 1930s, a smooth-talking criminal named Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) persuades two manacled partners to escape their chain gang and retrieve some stashed treasure.

Ulysses guarantees them a share of the booty if they'll just pick up those chains and run. But their journey is fraught with unpredictable misadventure, and Ulysses' partners, Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (Turturro), aren't the brightest fellow fugitives in the world. For some time, for instance, Delmar is convinced that Pete has turned into a toad.

There's no saying where the story is headed – which is par for the Coens' course.

Their long, winding journey includes run-ins with a group of singing, white-frocked church faithfuls at a riverside baptism (the "Sirens"); Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), a blues guitarist who admits to selling his soul to the devil; Big Dan Teague (Goodman), a one-eyed bible salesman (and "Cyclops" of the story) hellbent on stealing the jailbirds' money; and Babyface Nelson (Michael Badalucco), the lovably psychotic gangster who really hates being called "Babyface."

And let's not forget the Ku Klux Klansmen whose nighttime ceremony suggests a sequence choreographed by Busby Berkley, or the three prisoners' overnight fame when they redefine themselves as a singing-hillbilly group known as the Soggy Bottom Boys.

Music, which includes T-Bone Burnett's memorable score, is a huge part of the movie. Clooney, Nelson (a musician) and King (a renowned blues performer from New Orleans) all perform on the soundtrack. And the songs include old-time country and blues standards written or performed by the likes of James Carter, the Carter family, Alison Krauss, and Stanley brothers Ralph and Carter.

But if everything in the movie seems just right, it never seems to be enough. All of the episodes are individually enjoyable, as far as they go. But there's no cumulative power; they come and go without building the drama. Although Ulysses and his buddies are charming, their camaraderie doesn't crackle as much as this movie wants it to.

Clooney, who's made up to suggest a scuzzy, twinkly eyed Clark Gable down on his luck, is likable. But his shtick of needing to spruce up his hair with hairnets and Dapper Dan pomade is only funny the first two or three times. And he never takes charge. He's amiably reciting lines rather than owning the movie.

Well before the end, that mounting sense of disappointment cannot be ignored. It's not that the movie "fails." It's just that, by the time Ulysses finds his Penelope (a tough-talking, easily riled fiancee named Penny, played by Hunter), it's clear that this isn't quite the great comedic journey we hoped for. It doesn't do more than whet the appetite for the next Coen brothers movie.

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (PG-13, 106 minutes)Contains strong language and depiction of animal deaths. Area theaters.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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