I confess - I'm one of those supposedly "good" students who managed to squeak through high school without ever having read "The Odyssey" or even "Ulysses," James Joyce's more mystifying retelling of the classic.
Luckily, I don't need to have that background in order to enjoy "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The latest release from the Coen brothers (writer-director Joel and writer-producer Ethan) claims in its credits to be an adaptation of Homer's epic. Of course, they've lied in their opening credits before ("Fargo" turned out not to be a true story after all), but this time they seem to be telling the truth.
Based on my very limited knowledge of the story, I was able to gather that Ulysses Everett McGill is an update of Odysseus, now relocated to Depression-era Mississippi. And instead of returning from the Trojan War, Everett and his two buddies Pete (Coen brothers' staple John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) have escaped from prison. Not that the latter two had much choice - all three are joined by the same chain.
Everett has two main goals in his journey: to stock up on as much Dapper Dan hair pomade as possible and to prevent his wife, Penny, from remarrying. At this point, I would like to congratulate myself for realizing that Penny is an updated version of Penelope, Odysseus' wife. And as played by that muse of Coen brothers' quirkiness, Holly Hunter, Penny is a Southern-fried riot.
There are other aspects of "The Odyssey" that I recognized here, including a group of three women seductively washing laundry in the river (as the Sirens) and John Goodman, fantastic as always, as an antagonistic one-eyed Bible salesman representing the Cyclops.
There are other minor character bits that pepper the film in addition to Goodman's and Hunter's. Michael Badalucco abandons his lawyer role from "The Practice" to cross over to the other side of the law as Babyface Nelson, a crazed criminal in Bonnie-and-Clyde fashion, and Stephen Root ("Newsradio") is a hoot as a blind radio station manager. Most memorable of all, however, is the excellent Charles Durning, oozing all sorts of Southern sleaze and charm as gubernatorial candidate Pappy O'Daniel.
If I am at best only able to piece "Brother" together, that's okay, because the Coen brothers tell the story in piecemeal form. At its core, "Brother" is only an episodic series of good ideas and some great sequences. These sequences lack the visual resonance found in "Blood Simple" and the haunting ingenuity of "Fargo," two Coen brother masterpieces, but that's because those movies were intended for audiences to think. "Brother" wants its audiences to sit back and absorb.
And so this tale of three ramblin' men becomes a salute to the art of storytelling itself, in many forms. In addition to its literary genesis, "Brother" also pays homage to the light-hearted movies created during the Depression and immediately after, particularly Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels," from which the film gets its title. "Brother" hearkens back to a day when we could sympathize with the bad guys because they were really good at heart. In an age when filmmakers pride themselves on their gritty realism, In doing so, the brothers behind "Brother" benignly salute a gentle style and feel that we can revisit but will never return.
That's exactly what we get in Clooney, who conjures up Clark Gable's affable spirit in addition to his look. Clooney is not a skilled thespian; his strengths have always come from his malleability. He allows directors (great ones like Wolfgang Petersen and Steven Soderbergh) to mold his performance so that it best aids the movie at hand. And as such, he's a perfect fit in "Brother."
Despite the great ensemble performances, however, the best character is actually a song, recalling similar devices used in movies like "The Mambo Kings" and "That Thing You Do!" While the three convicts pose as a bluegrass band named The Soggy Bottom Boys, their song "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" transforms them into celebrities. Is this witty commentary on the redemptive power of fame? Hardly. Is it an entertaining work that shows just how fun escape can be? Absolutely.
Just like the movie it serenades.