O Brother Where Art Thou?

O Brother, Where Art Thou? transports Homer's Odyssey to 1937 Mississippi with an ear-candy score of bluegrass, gospel and country and a live-wire star turn from George Clooney as a vain escaped convict who wears a hairnet. It's no surprise that the Coen brothers — director Joel and producer Ethan co-wrote the script — devised this clever tease. One wag dubbed it Hi, Honey, I'm Homer! But the film is shot through with unexpected feeling. The inspiration comes from the 1941 Preston Sturges film landmark Sullivan's Travels, in which a comedy director (Joel McCrea) journeys through Depression-era America to research a serious movie he wants to call O Brother, Where Art Thou? Sullivan never makes that movie; he decides it's better to make people laugh. The joke is that the Coens, having made the film for him, decide the same thing. Clooney's motormouthed Ulysses Everett McGill, jailed for practicing law without a license, escapes from a chain gang with fellow cons Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and embarks on an odyssey to reunite with his wife, Penny (Holly Hunter). Homeric parallels include a one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman) who beats the boys up and three sirens who "love them up." The cons also find time to record a song, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," that becomes a hit. The film swings from farce to fright — a striking Ku Klux Klan rally in which the Grand Wizard sings "O Death" is both. It's a wild, whacked-out wonder. Coenheads rejoice!

From The Archives Issue 278: November 16, 1978