Clooney is Ulysses? Coens make movie making mythic with O Brother, by...

Clooney is Ulysses? Coens make movie making mythic with O Brother, by Mick Jeffries

Ace January 11, 2011

“We’re in a tight spot!” exclaims chain gang escapee Ulysses Everett McGill in the depression-era O Brother Where Art Thou?, the latest entrée from the cinematic kitchen of Ethan and Joel Coen. But this latest offering from the implacable team that has given us Raising Arizona, Fargo, and Barton Fink shows that they’re in no tight spot when it comes to delivering cinematic ingenuity and comedic brilliance.

Like Coen films before it, O Brother revolves loosely around an unlikely hero who weathers a gauntlet of adversity, gaining personal enlightenment the hard way. That person here is Everett (George Clooney) who, along with fellow escapees, simple-minded Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and cagey Pete (John Turturro), spends the duration of the film getting out of tight spots, outrunning cops, Klansmen and even sirens. The Greek kind, that is – sort of.

Across billowing fields of golden grain, the three prisoners make a break for it, away from a Mississippi chain gang in search of hidden treasure and adventure. Still shackled, they meet a blind handcar operator who tells them: “You will find a fortune but not the fortune you seek.” And against such cryptic prophecy, the trio careens through panoramic, shimmering 1930s America. Through the Coen lens, the Great Depression never looked so good.

O Brother Where Art Thou? finds the Coens in top form, delving this time into the rich traditions of screwball comedy, mythic lore and of course, all manner of slack-jawed bumpkins. The painted tableau is equal parts riotous and beautiful, calling to mind the antics of Raising Arizona and the visual sumptuousness of Barton Fink.

The Coens know movies and movie-making (which is more than can be said of much of Hollywood), but their real gift is the ability to tap the forgotten coffers of American filmdom for inspiration in a modern framework. O Brother brings them several steps closer to mainstream Hollywood by adding box office breaker George Clooney to their ensemble cast of misfits and misbegottens. And shining as Everett, a silver-tongued wag with a pomade fixation, Clooney doesn’t disappoint.

Verbally, the movie is festooned with exclamation points, its rapid-fire dialogue plowing down the audience and moving on without hesitation, paying tribute to the great screwball comedies of the 1940s. In fact, the title of the movie is an inside joke referring to the Preston Sturges 1941 classic comedy, Sullivan’s Travels. In Sturges’s movie, an idealistic comedy director wants to make a “serious” movie (to be called O Brother Where Art Thou?) about the plight of the homeless, and in his efforts ends up on the dole himself.

This nod to the Golden Age of filmmaking is toasted visually throughout the movie, shot entirely in vibrant, shining golds and browns, bathing scenes of chain gangs, evangelical Christians, dancehall musicians, and even Ku Klux Klansmen with equal grandeur.

The movie billows from scene to unlikely scene, like a hot dusty wind sneaking up on all manner of odd, delightful and sometimes horrifying characters. It’s an odyssey for the trio of convicts – THE Odyssey, in fact, according to the introduction, which salutes Homer’s epic Greek poem. A blind handcar operator as Soothsayer? A treacherous bible-salesman as the Cyclops? Verily and forsooth. Moreover, O Brother also serves up idealized bluesman Robert Johnson (called Tommy, played by real-life bluesman Chris Thomas King) and famed gangster Babyface Nelson in their tour of myth through the ages.

Mythos aside, the film rests solidly on Clooney’s shoulders. His lead character, Everett is driven and intent on getting his deserting wife back (played by Coen fave Holly Hunter). Everett’s unexpected depth begins to reveal itself when the audience discovers he is pater familius, the disenfranchised daddy of seven daughters. “Momma says you ain’t bonafide!” one of them dishes upon his unlikely reappearance in town. Everett finally catches up with his estranged wife, Penny (Penelope in the Odyssey, if you’ve got your Cliff’s Notes handy) at the town Woolworth’s, hilariously hissing “Succubus!” at her rapid-fire accusations of guilt by abandonment. Penny’s new beau finally steps in to deliver a knuckle sandwich which lands Everett on the curb out front.

Underpinning the whole adventure are the sounds of old-time folk music and high lonesome bluegrass. The film does a wonderful service to the majesty of these near-lost musical traditions and features Clooney as the quite-convincing leader (though he did lip-synch his parts) of an accidental quartet, The Soggy Mountain Boys, who become a radio sensation even as the fugitives are trying to lay low.

The musical selection is masterfully wrought and might well help sell a few more records by Kentucky bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley or the Cox Family (who perform in the movie at a political rally/jamboree). The film is lovingly peppered with a masterful blend of authentic old-time tunes and newer pieces by modern stalwarts of traditional bluegrass, like Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski (who contributes the magnificent “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow”).

Like it’s protagonist, O Brother Where Art Thou? finds its mark, sloshing together unlikely genres, characters and situations with impunity, playing on many levels at once and well-suited for most any age group. Take your grandma. Take your kid.

O Brother Where Art Thou? is a jewel awash in the gravel at the cineplex.

Despite the fact that O Brother, Where Art Thou? goes into wide release on the 12th, ‘wide’ apparently does not include Lexington. Look for it in the next few weeks.