The new movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a picaresque comic strip "based"--as the credits inform us with the filmmakers' trademark brand of knowing tongue-in-cheekiness--"upon The Odyssey by Homer." Set in the Deep South during the Depression, the movie does borrow certain figures from the ancient Greek epic (several sirens, the Cyclops, Penelope), but in relating the adventures of its trio of bumbling heroes, escaped convicts from a chain gang, the Coens also invoke other, less-than-classical sources, including The Beverly Hillbillies, Bonnie and Clyde, and, at times, Mad magazine.
This happy-go-lucky pastiche mode is nothing new for the Coens (Joel writes and directs, Ethan writes and produces): Their work is almost always constructed of nods to, or winks at, other movies, books, cultural fads. Working the sometimes questionable line between homage and parody, the Coens have played over the years with borrowings from Dashiell Hammett, Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler, Clifford Odets, Howard Hawks, and Frank Capra. They've made an art house slasher movie, a screwball send-up of parenthood, and an entire comedy about the inventor of the hula hoop. The extent to which one enjoys their pictures, or doesn't, depends largely on one's tolerance for the clever yet essentially empty references they favor. Rarely do the Coen brothers' allusions stick or pan out. Instead, they tend to land like an elbow in the ribs. See me? their jokes ask us.
This time around, the Coens appear intent on developing a slightly richer, fuller emotional palette. And the film's meandering, road movie format allows them to alternate registers from scene to scene, so that, for example, the picture opens with a vivid shot of a mostly black chain gang splitting rocks and singing a spiritual in soulful unison--and then cuts immediately to the clownish credit sequence, in which the three white runaways (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) make a gangly break for it across an open field, then scramble to catch a chicken, then cook it, then abandon their half-eaten meal when they hear the police dogs barking nearby.
Though sometimes this grab bag approach to tone and genre threatens to seem merely scattered (a little slapstick here, a little schmaltz there, now a dash of social comment), the constant modulation of key and mood is what gives the film its lift. The Coens are no deep thinkers--and in fact the moment they attempt to apply their scrappy sense of humor to more serious matters, like a lynch mob and a Ku Klux Klan rally, the movie threatens to spin wildly out of control. But as long as they remember who they are--a couple of wise guys from Minnesota--O Brother has a rhythm and whimsy all its own, part ditty, part Delta ballad.
Debts to Homer aside, the Coens' jumping-off place is obviously filmic. O Brother lifts its title from Preston Sturges's great 1941 Hollywood satire Sullivan's Travels, in which O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the name of the high-minded movie-in-a-movie that Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wants to direct. Instead of making another picture like his usual airheaded successes--hits like Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Plants of 1939--Sullivan decides to attempt a bit of earnest Steinbeckian social drama, or, as he puts it, "a commentary on modern conditions ... stark realism ... the problems that confront the average man."
The joke, of course, is on Sullivan himself, who insists he must prepare to direct his movie by exploring the "suffering of humanity" and going undercover as a bum. By the end of the film, after experiencing hunger, a mugging, arrest and conviction for a murder he did not commit, and several years of hard labor, Sullivan comes around: Now that he's suffered a bit and, more important, witnessed real, inescapable suffering on the part of the truly downtrodden--those who have no choice but to trudge through life with holes in the toes of their shoes-- he realizes the world's profound need for comedy, for, perhaps, a whole series of Hey, Hey in the Haylofts.
"There's a lot to be said for making people laugh," he says, getting misty in the film's famous last scene, with Veronica Lake on his lap. "Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much ... but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan." In his typically cynical yet sentimental manner, Sturges manages to nail the uncomfortable tension--between art and entertainment, reality and fantasy--that plays at the heart of most worthwhile movies. And though Sullivan's Travels seems, on the face of it, to give escapism the final word, Sturges manages quite brilliantly to suggest the darkly unfunny universe that lies just beyond the edge of his comedy's frame. The film draws strength from counterpoint: Comedy fends off tragedy, as tragedy calls for a comic response. Meanwhile, the film's glib, fre-netic surface often seems a kind of high-wire routine that Sturges has devised to help him shimmy across the yawning void.
Line for line, gag for gag, O Brother is no Sullivan's Travels, but the Coens have nonetheless absorbed and applied with intelligence the essential know-thyself lesson of Sturges's film, and they've taken their intriguing mix-and-match tonal cues from his: Like Sullivan's Travels, the Coen brothers' movie blends low comedy with middling melodrama in unusual ways. Which is not to say that the Coens' belief in "making people laugh" excuses their occasionally frivolous relationship to reality. The comical Klan rally is, as I said, a close brush with a very bad idea. Meant to suggest a scene from The Wizard of Oz, this sequence is surely one of the more callous and tasteless in the brothers' entire oeuvre. It would be possible, I suppose, to lampoon such a thing, but to do so well would mean to drop the sophomoric movie quotations and really look the racist movement in the eye. The Coens take the easy, condescending route and simply make the white-hooded mob look like prancing fools, or movie extras--in the process minimizing the actual terror and violence practiced by the all-too-real Klan over the years.
So, too, the Coens leave no one unstereotyped. Their southerners are nearly all white and dim-witted (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson spend the entire film with their eyes bulging idiotically from their sockets and their jaws hanging open, the better to catch flies) or white and slippery (George Clooney brings a Clark Gable-ish élan and mustache to the role of the de facto leader of the three runaways, a smooth-tongued con man, while Charles Durning and John Goodman throw themselves gamely into the pop-up-book parts of a fat, good-ol'-boy politician and a fat, evil Bible salesman, respectively). The few blacks who turn up in the margins of the film are types as well, a blind prophet (Lee Weaver) and a sloe-eyed kid (Chris Thomas King) who says he sold his soul to the devil, Willie McTell-style, in order to play the guitar better. If nothing else, though, the Coens are democratic with their caricatures. Everyone is sketched in the same crude crayon strokes and with the same easygoing affection.
Yet O Brother is also grounded in a striking melancholy: Roger Deakins's cinematography has a dusty, yellow glow and imbues the film with a crucial sense of both the grandeur and poverty of these wide-open southern spaces. As he shoots them, the cotton fields, swamps, and podunk towns of 1930s Mississippi are clearly meant to recall hand-painted versions of famous photographs of the era by Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans, as well as the stagy sparseness of John Ford's Grapes of Wrath. No matter how silly the proceedings become, there's something severe in these backdrops. The somber landscapes keep the film from becoming a mere cartoon.
And perhaps most important of all, the film's music, mostly compiled from archival sources by T-Bone Burnett, is delightful and suggestive of a whole complex, shifting range of American feelings and frames of mind. A compendium of blues, bluegrass, gospel, country, and folk, performed by the on-screen actors and by musicians like Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Norman Blake, Ralph Stanley, and the Fairfield Four, it does more than just accompany the action. In fact, it comes to serve as the movie's liveliest, most nuanced main character. ¤