"We thought you was a toad!"
I remember reading Homer's Odyssey when I was in high school and thinking that it was nothing but a frantic telling of many complicated stories. It has a lot to offer as an adventure poem, but it almost seems strange that all of its angles were used to tell the same story. The same thing can be said about the Coen Brothers' film that is loosely based on the ancient work. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a film that seems to be based on a lot of interesting ideas, but it lacks something important - structure.
It did not take long after the film was released for Joel and Ethan Coen to admit that they had never actually read Homer's Odyssey, nor does it take very long for the viewer to figure out the same thing. There are several allusions to the epic poem, but some might not be obvious to the others. We have an angry sheriff who represents Poseidon, the eye-patched Bible salesman to serve as our cyclops, siren wash women and the narcissistic outfit leader to be our main protagonist. The modernization of the story puts the viewer into 1937 Mississippi, so some of these comparisons are a bit of a stretch.
Our Odysseus in O Brother is named Ulysses and played brilliantly by George Clooney. He is a quick talking and self absorbed prison escapee who manages to trick his jail mates into believing that he knows the whereabouts of a great treasure. He is obviously smarter than his crew, but that is not saying very much. Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) make up the hilarious supporting cast.
The storyline may be a bit on the messy side, but this is still a film made by the Coen Brothers. This means that it is bound to feature some very interesting cinematography. Roger Deakins is the long time cinematographer for the Coen's and their films. In O Brother he presents a world where everything is shot in Fall colors and darker tones. Deakins said of the style that "Ethan and Joel favored a dry, dusty Delta look with golden sunsets. They wanted it to look like an old hand-tinted picture, with the intensity of colors dictated by the scene and natural skin tones that were all shades of the rainbow." This, and the sepia toning, is what makes you believe in the oldtimeyness of the characters.
The aspect that pop culture will remember O Brother for is the very famous soundtrack. In fact, the accompanying soundtrack may be more famous than the film itself. T Bone Burnett is credited for putting the soundtrack together, and he uses a variety of religious, African American spiritual and traditional bluegrass music to support the picture's ethos. The soundtrack, anchored by "Man of Constant Sorrow", went on to become a multiple Grammy winner and an overall music phenomenon. It is incredibly easy to become lost in the film's perfect music selections.
This is nowhere near the Coen Brothers' best showing. In fact, I would not even put it in their top five. But O Brother, Where Art Thou is still a positive cinematic experience. The music is memorable, the acting is wonderful, but the story tip toes on the line of overly mixed up. There are a lot of good ideas here, but Joel and Ethan could not collectively put it all together. If the Coen Brothers cannot do it, I doubt any other filmmaker could....
O Brother, Where Art Thou: C+
My Next Film: The 39 Steps (Hitchcock. 1935)