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Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?


O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Coen, Joel. Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen. Universal, 2000. ISBN 0788826883.

O Muse!
Sing in me, and through me tell the story
Of that man skilled in all the ways of contending,
A wanderer, harried for years on end...

These words from the Odyssey by Homer are the first visual we see in The Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, followed immediately by a scene of a chain gang singing as they work in a pastel black and white which fades gradually into an earthy color. And, thus, the tone for the movie is set: a retelling of Homer's epic as a 1930s prison escape movie, with unconventional visuals and wonderful blues and gospel music.

The Coen brothers, in an interview included on the DVD, described their movie as "The Three Stooges meet Homer's Odyssey," and while this is most certainly an accurate and succinct description, it doesn't do the movie justice. The Three Stooges were never this funny, nor this talented, and The Odyssey doesn't have music this good. A Coen brothers fan will recognize their two different styles of movies; the serious, yet still very quirky, style of Barton Fink and Fargo where the story comes in second place after plumbing into thematic elements and the depth of the human soul, and the off-kilter comedies, like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, where the story and the laughs are the important things. O Brother, Where Art Thou? falls into the second category, and the laughs range from the physical comedy of the aforementioned Three Stooges to more highbrow satire and drollness. It all works.

The visuals in O Brother, Where Art Thou? are more striking than in most Coen brother's films, and this is quite an achievement compared to their usual visual skill. A special feature included on the DVD version of the film shows the lengths the Coens went to in order to make sure the look of the movie was exactly what they wanted. The camera and the settings become characters themselves as they set the mood and tone of the film in a way acting and writing alone can't. Most of the scenery is brown and dusty, and the majority of the chosen colors are very earthy, so that the times where this isn't the case, the scenery becomes especially vivid and lets the viewer know that something special (possibly "fantastic" in the Homeric sense) is happening -- or is about to.

The aforementioned "Three Stooges" of the film are played by George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, all three of whom play their roles as prison escapee Southern country bumpkins with just the right amount of originality vs. stereotype to make the roles both easily identifiable and still quite distinct and interesting. Clooney especially shines as the pseudo-intellectual leader of the trio of convicts, many of his speeches delivered with an intense, yet still somehow blank, stare in an instructional tone are the highlights of the film. The supporting cast, including John Goodman, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, and Michael Badalucco, fill their roles admirably, though Goodman and Hunter in particular do occasionally break the almost hypnotic effect of the movie's pacing with their sharper, faster paced style of delivering dialogue.

What sets this movie apart from other Coen brother's films, though, is the music. While O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not a musical in the conventional sense, it certainly is in spirit. Gospel choirs, bluegrass bands, blues singing chain gangs, and, of course, the musical "Sirenes" all play integral roles in the film, and every single piece of music is performed lovingly and beautifully. Without the music, this would be a fairly average Coen brothers offering, the music is what sets it beyond the sublime.

The DVD version of the film has a good selection of extras, including your typical theatrical trailers, cast biographies, and "making of" documentary. The two most interesting features are a documentary made specifically about the method used to develop the film, resulting in the unusual coloration of the final product, and a music video for the film's featured song "Man of Constant Sorrow." Two features which do not exist, which would have been nice to see, would have been an option to jump straight to the musical scenes in the film and a discussion of Homer's Odyssey and how it inspired various scenes in the film, but this is really just nitpicking. The extras are all well done and informative, and the Coens do go beyond the bare minimum of what is expected on a DVD where special features are concerned.

Shaun Ferguson