Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (Paramount, 2001)


They have a plan, but not a clue.

Fans of traditional bluegrass will be delighted with three hours of old standards and other tunes dating back to the Depression Era, when this wonderful tale is set. "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" provides the  musical landscape for the antics of the funniest trio of escaped convicts to hit the screen since the Keystone Cops. The use of dialogue boxes for the opening credits, a technique borrowed from silent film, clues the viewer that Oh Brother, Where Art Thou is contemporary slapstick comedy. Starring the incomparable George Clooney in a stellar performance, this film offers homage to classic literature as well as film, while providing sidesplitting laughter. Parallels and allusions to Homer's classic epic, "The Odyssey" include the names of Everett and his wife Penny whose problems are not far removed from those of Odysseus and Penelope.

Clooney is Ulysses Everett McGill, a flimflam man with a quick wit and a never ending dialogue of nonsense, lies and soft-soaping. His most immediate concerns always revolve around toiletries... especially for his short dark locks of hair. A fanatical user of Dapper Dan pomade, he goes so far as to sleep in a hair net to preserve the effect. And he's quick to point out that "the pleasing aroma is half the point!" In one scene the boys find trouble when Everett draws attention to the three of them by arguing with a salesman over brands of hair pomade.

His two partners, neither of whom have been overly blessed with the smarts, are Delmar and Pete, a couple of dullards to whom he happens to be chained, and who have joined his quest after falling for his story of stashed loot in a cabin scheduled to be flooded. Again, recall the journey of Odysseus. Tim Blake Nelson in his first film performance, who also takes the lead vocals on "In The Jailhouse Now", and John Turturro play the parts of the two simpletons. 

The trio's first encounter on the lam is with a blind old man on a railway pushcar who offers them a warning. "The prize you seek will not be the prize you find." Neither understanding nor paying heed to the prophet's words, the trio continue on after the promise of hidden loot. In "The Odyssey" it was Odysseus who received warnings which he chose to disregard.

Everett, cocky as all get out, watches with amusement as the two simpletons, Delmar and Pete are called to salvation by the sight of white robed penitents going down to the river to be baptized to Alison Krauss' version of "Down to the River to Pray". When the two boys come back properly baptized and assured of their redemption, Everett quite happily reminds them of the separation of church and state and the precariousness of their freedom. A newfound friend, Tommy Johnson, a black blues singer who has sold his soul to the devil (another reference to Odyssey) joins them as they record "Man of Constant Sorrows" to make some quick money, unintentionally attracting a listening audience and becoming famous.

George Nelson stops to give the boys a lift,  eventually leading their role in a bank robbery. The utterance of George's hated nickname by a bank patron triggers a manic episode in the previously jovial gangster. Babyface Nelson stalks off in a rage leaving the boys, now called the Soggy Bottom Band, with all the money. In the film, Nelson is later captured. Of course this is historically incorrect, since Babyface Nelson was to die in a shower of police bullets, but the creative license taken by the Coen brothers only adds to the hilarity.

A crazy misunderstanding takes place when three sexy ladies (The Odyssey's three sirens) ply the boys with a jug of whiskey and leave nothing but a toad in Pete's clothes, and two horrified and hung over men wondering what happened. When they meet up with Big Dan Teague, a highwayman playfully acted by John Goodman, they're robbed, beaten, and the toad is killed to the horror of Delmar. He's sure it's Pete.

There's a jailbreak, a harrowing encounter with the KKK and, of course, a flood. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou is the most entertaining movie of the year

Clooney, incidentally, won a 2001 Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical, while Oh Brother, Where Art Thou has won a Grammy for its soundtrack in 2002.

[Kate Brown]