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In the opening credits of Joel and Ethan Coen's, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their 2000 depression-era prison break movie-turned-screwball odyssey through the deep south, is the attribution: "Based upon The Odyssey by Homer." It's a cheeky proclamation and it doesn't take a classical scholar to note that, if it's indeed true, they've taken liberties with the material. George Clooney comes on like a goofball Clark Gable as the fast-talking but slow-witted convict Everett, a greasy con-man who escapes from a chain gang, dragging along a couple of dim bulbs (a tetchy John Turturro and a sweetly stupid Tim Blake Nelson, both of whom spend much of the film with mouths agape and eyes glazed over). And drag them he does, almost literally, as they are chained together in those opening scenes. Once they throw off those chains, he appoints himself leader of their quest to uncover a buried treasure in a valley scheduled to be flooded. Along the way they have their fates foretold by a blind seer, become enchanted by the seductive song of three women washing in the river (the Sirens), are attacked by a giant of a one-eyed salesman (John Goodman, standing in for the Cyclops) and race to Everett's home town to stop his abandoned wife, Penny (Holly Hunter as a tart Penelope), from marrying another man. Did I mention that Everett's given name is Ulysses?
It has a remarkable (if playfully skewed) fidelity to the epic poem of mythical struggle, even if the filmmaking brother act never actually read Homer's work (as they take pains to point out). "But we read the comic book version of The Odyssey," confessed Ethan, as well as saw Hollywood spectacles and Ray Harryhausen fantasies based on, inspired by or selectively cribbed from it. Yet Homer's epic poem is merely one of many inspirations for a film that Joel described as "the Lawrence of Arabia of hayseed comedies." You could call the opening scenes a Three Stooges version of I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). They pick up a blues guitarist (Chris Thomas King) on his way to the crossroads to seal his deal with the devil (a classic blues legend), tag along with Baby Face Nelson on a bank robbery spree ("My name is George Nelson! Not Baby Face!") and crash a Ku Klux Klan rally that looks like a marching band halftime show and plays out like a scene from The Wizard of Oz (1939). Colorful tidbits from real-life southern politics and good 'ol boy populism of the thirties and forties make up the crazy quilt backdrop of their adventure. Hillbilly humor and screwball scenes play out in surreal imagery. And the title comes from one of the great depression comedies of all time: Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1941). It's the name of the social drama that earnest, ambitious Hollywood comedy director John Sullivan so desperately wants to make that he hits the road as a hobo to learn the hardscrabble human condition first hand. In that film, Sullivan has a change of heart when he sees the joy that comedies bring even the most wretched souls. The lesson isn't lost on the Coens. Despite the heavy-hearted title, their depression road movie is lighthearted and whimsical and filled with infectious music.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is populated with familiar faces from previous Coen films-Hunter, Goodman, Turturro, Charles Durning, Michael Badalucco-but it's their first collaboration with Clooney, who was their first choice for the lead. In Clooney, they found a star with the look of a thirties matinee idol and the snappy delivery of a seasoned Hollywood comic. The actor, who grew up in Kentucky, jumped on the project and embraced the role of the pomade-addicted convict, and he turned to his uncle for help in mastering the accent he'd lost long ago. "I sent him a tape recorder with a script and asked him to read all of my lines," he told an interviewer. "I just did my Uncle Jack through the whole thing."
The "old-timey" blues, folk, gospel and country that fills the soundtrack was not just an integral part of the film. It sparked a whole revival of American roots music, spawning a Grammy-winning album and a couple of concert tours featuring the soundtrack artists. T-Bone Burnett compiled the archival songs (which included actual chain gang chants recorded by Alan Lomax) and produced the original music performed by such artists as Alison Krauss, John Hartford, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. Clooney rehearsed his own vocals for weeks but ended up lip synching the film's signature song "A Man of Constant Sorrow" to the vocals of Dan Tyminski. He can claim credit for his own stage moves, however, including a hokey chicken dance that he remembered from his Kentucky childhood. According to Clooney, the film's choreographers hated it but it made the Coens laugh.
Though Joel Coen has solo director credit and Ethan takes producer credit, they were essentially co-directors on the film. According to cast members, they were both on set, each focusing on different parts of the scene, often swapping places like a tag team, yet always in synch when it came to what they wanted out of a scene. They also edited the film together under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? received Academy Award nominations for Ethan and Joel Coen's screenplay (duly nominated in the "Based on Material Previously Produced or Published" category) and for Roger Deakins' golden hued cinematography. The film was shot on location across Mississippi during the winter, when the country was green and wet, and he turned to digital recoloring to achieve that sepia-tinged dustbowl look and faded yesteryear atmosphere. That level of delicate digital color manipulation wasn't unknown at the time (Spielberg had used it to give Saving Private Ryan its distinctive color palette in 1998) but still a fairly radical step for a film in 2000, especially one produced on a Coen Brothers budget. It all paid off. Their odyssey (or is it their Odyssey?), reworked as a tall tale in the folk song idiom of superstition, magic realism and religious mysticism and delivered with a mix of screwball goofiness and intellectual whimsy, spins a surreal story from imagination, inspiration and ingenuity. It hit a chord with the public and became their biggest hit to date and remains one of their most beloved films.
Producer: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen (uncredited)
Director: Joel Coen; Ethan Coen (uncredited)
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen; Homer (epic poem "The Odyssey")
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Art Direction: Richard Johnson
Music: T Bone Burnett
Film Editing: Roderick Jaynes, Roderick Jaynes, Tricia Cooke
Cast: George Clooney (Everett), John Turturro (Pete), Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar), John Goodman (Big Dan Teague), Holly Hunter (Penny), Chris Thomas King (Tommy Johnson), Charles Durning (Pappy O'Daniel), Del Pentecost (Junior O'Daniel), Michael Badalucco (George Nelson), J.R. Horne (Pappy's Staff), Brian Reddy (Pappy's Staff), Wayne Duvall (Homer Stokes),Ed Gale (The Little Man), Ray McKinnon (Vernon T. Waldrip), Daniel Von Bargen (Sheriff Cooley), Royce D. Applegate (Man with Bullhorn), Frank Collison (Wash Hogwallop).
C-105m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Sean Axmaker