O Brother, Where Art Thou? 4.0 stars

A road comedy, “based upon The Odyssey by Homer,” about three chain-gang fugitives in Depression-era Mississippi. (The title, should you need reminding, comes from Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels: the proposed title for a “meaningful” film by a refractory Hollywood contract director, whose subsequent quest to get in touch with the Common Man lands him on a Southern chain gang.) While the humor is as broad as the Coen brothers ever have allowed (i.e., Raising Arizona), it is equally as bright and as funny. No one in American cinema, past or present, writes tastier, tangier dialogue than Joel and Ethan Coen; and the script is studded with well-turned gags that could stand alongside any textbook samples from the pages of Preston Sturges, Jules Furthman, Ben Hecht. (The nitwit fugitives enter inevitably into a who-put-you-in-charge dispute. The rebellious one says, “I’m votin’ for Yours Truly.” The besieged leader responds, “Well, I’m votin’ for Yours Truly, too.” The swing voter, looking uncertainly from one to the other, puzzling out the politic choice, says, “Okay, I’m with you fellers.”) And the Coens show here, as they showed already in The Hudsucker Proxy, that if you take the four-letter words out of their vocabulary they will not be handicapped in the slightest. Also comparable to Hudsucker, or more exactly comparable to the metamorphosis of Tim Robbins therein, is the loosening-up and warming-up of George Clooney into a flexible and a palatable actor, flourishing in the part of Ulysses (you see?) Everett McGill, fond of the four-dollar, as opposed to four-letter, word (“bifurcated,” “rusticated,” “rancor,” “paradigm”), and hypersensitive about his hair every waking moment (“My hair!” is the first thing from his lips when startled from sleep) — even to the point of borrowing John Turturro’s hairnet from The Big Lebowski. And his grooming routine with a tin of pomade (it has to be Dapper Dan brand, not Fop), getting a sort of razor-stropping motion going with his comb, is as educational as it is elegant. Turturro, as the second of the escapees, is of course an old reliable in a Coen movie. But the revelation in the cast is the writer-director (of Eye of God) and sometime bit-player, Tim Blake Nelson, whose expressions of open-mouthed and cross-eyed stupidity, as the slowest of the trio, form the solidest thematic link to the Coen brothers’ previous effort, Lebowski. In spite of the preponderance of the evidence (the Farrelly brothers, Adam Sandler, et al.), it is not necessary for a comedy about stupidity to be stupid itself. Not unless it is content to be unfunny and hypocritical in the bargain. The Coens have become the keenest observers of American boobery since the departure — right around the time in which O Brother is set — of Ring Lardner. With John Goodman, Holly Hunter. 2000.

Duncan Shepherd

  • Rated PG-13 | 1 hour, 42 minutes

This movie is not currently in theaters.

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