Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000): United States – directed by Joel Coen
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains bad language and some suggestive material
Throughout the years the Coen brothers have managed to carve out their unique niche in cinema. They’ve tried their hand at a variety of genres, ranging from their debut thriller Blood Simple. to black crime comedies like Fargo and neo-westerns like No Country For Old Men. They’ve also tried their hand at lighter fare, like Raising Arizona. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? falls into this last category.
Based on the story of “The Odyssey,” the film takes the tale through a few strange twists. Everett (George Clooney) has just engineered an escape from his chain gang alongside the dim and diminutive Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and the gangly Pete (John Turturro). The unlikely trio embarks on a crazy journey to recover a lost treasure before its hiding place is covered by a brand new dam.
It wouldn’t be based on “The Odyssey,” though, if there weren’t some interesting characters along the way, and this is where the Coen brothers shine. Their absurd and surrealist humor provide some striking and hilarious characters, who almost come off as caricatures. A blind man pumping himself down a lonesome train track offers the trio some wisdom and portents. His spiritual nature is compounded when you wonder how he got on the track, going one mile per hour, mere minutes after a train barreled through.
The gang is sidetracked by a trio of sirens who attempt to seduce them, but Everett and Delmar fall asleep and can’t recollect what happened. Pete, however, disappears. As Everett and Delmar attempt to find the treasure and discover what happened to Pete they come across a fearsome Cyclops, in the form of Big Dan (John Goodman). He’s a loud-mouthed creature and proclaims himself a Bible salesman. But, like so many other characters and journeys in the film, he may not be what he initially appears.
A baby-faced bank robber (Michael Badalucco) also takes them on a short ride, and eventually we meet up with Everett’s wife (Holly Hunter) and daughters. There is also a shifty politician and an aspiring candidate for governor who may belong to an underground group of sheet-wearing racists. The Depression-era setting provides a great deal of color and credibility to many of the characters.
The three leads are well-rounded and fleshed out. The acting is supreme as the actors play the fine line between dark comedy and silly comedy. Much of the humor comes from the absurd situations and characters, and it all works.
The entire production is naturally top-notch, with a unique color palette and some tight editing. The cinematography does what it needs to, and doesn’t mind lingering on an occasional long-shot, something I similarly appreciated with No Country For Old Men. While the film doesn’t reach the heights (and depth) of Fargo or No Country For Old Men, it is probably their best outing into straight comedy. It contains more complex themes and characters, and is a little subtler in its surrealism, than Raising Arizona. The sheer amount of culture, and not just popular culture, that they manage to fit in the film is amazing, even down to grabbing the title (in an appropriate and classy fashion) from the classic Sullivan’s Travels.
With every viewing I enjoy the film more. The first time I saw it I wasn’t overcome with emotion or hilarity, but with each subsequent viewing I laugh a little harder and find something additional to appreciate. That’s the genius of Joel and Ethan Coen; being able to craft complex stories and characters that are more fully appreciated with multiple viewings. If you’re a fan of any of their previous work, you’d be wise to re-watch Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? If you prefer more mainstream comedy with a more realistic taint, you might not be able to fully appreciate the movie’s charm.