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O Brother, Where Art Thou?

By Lee Gardner | Posted

An opening-credit title card informs the viewer that Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou? is "based upon 'The Odyssey' by Homer." Yeah, right--just like Fargo was based on a true story. While the story of Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) and his attempts to work his way across Depression-era Mississippi and back to his wife Penny (Holly Hunter) features elements of literature's original picaresque tale--a mysterious oracle, a hulking monocular villain (John Goodman, as an eye-patch-sporting Bible salesman), a trio of creek-dipping "si-reens," etc.--mostly it's just an excuse for the Coens to run amuck in Dixie, and run amuck they do, though it's not nearly as much fun as that might sound.

Truth be known, the brothers usually pull off their ridiculous plots by stocking them with strong characters to ground the shenanigans, something sorely lacking here. Clooney flashes plenty of his trademark charisma as the feckless, down-on-his-luck sharpie Everett, who leads fellow chain-gang escapees Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) on a search for a buried fortune. But Clooney rushes through his smarmy, smart-guy dialogue like it was a bite of too-hot biscuit he was eager to get out of his mouth, ruining pretty much any scene in which he opens his trap. Hunter works small wonders with her limited screen time; Nelson nearly sneaks off with the whole shooting match as sweet, simple, gaping Delmar; and Michael Badalucco roars through a hilarious cameo as a manic-depressive Babyface Nelson. But a mere handful of intriguing personalities are no match for an absurd yarn that meanders across the movie's artificially gilded Delta countryside more than the mighty Mississippi itself.

The soundtrack, a crackerjack mix of old-time country, gospel, and blues, plays a crucial role in the story, and the music often provides the highlights when the Coens' usually can't-fail set pieces fail--especially the Busby Berkeley-style Klan rally. After all, this is the kind of movie where, when it's time to run someone out of town on a rail, here comes a bunch of guys carrying a rail. Oh brother, indeed.

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