O Brother, Where Art Thou?
First screened in January 2001 / Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Joel Coen. Cast: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Chris Thomas King, Michael Badalucco, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Daniel von Bargen, Ray McKinnon, Wayne Duvall, Ed Gale, Stephen Root, Del Pentecost, Frank Collison, Quinn Gasaway, Millford Fortenberry, Lee Weaver. Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen (based loosely on The Odyssey by Homer).

Photo © 2000 Universal Pictures/Touchstone Pictures
What becomes of the "paterfamilias" who fails to be "bonafide"? Is he doomed to forever occupy "a damned awkward position vis-à-vis his progeny"? Certainly so, if he finds himself in this strangely dogged yet utterly aimless movie, where paternal alienation is not the only tight spot threatening to constrain his life, even to end it. Where his zesty if utterly arbitrary dialogue offers cold comfort indeed in the face of chain gangs, bloodhounds, arsonists, bullies, Klan rallies, sirens, thieves, lying ex-wives, floods (though that turns out to be a good thing), and the prospect of sharing half of his scenes with John Turturro at his most insufferably overcooked.

O Coen Brothers, where art thou, and while we're at it, where art we? I would love some directions. It's not just that I don't recognize this version of the American South, with its odd and itchy mix of consummately textured details and blatant, bovine facetiousness. It's not just that I can't decide whether the actors are all on in the same fathomless joke that you two have cooked up, or whether they simply don't mind being hung out to dry, mugging for their lives if, admittedly, appearing to enjoy it. I actually don't know where we are, even from scene to scene, or what the electoral-rivalry plot is doing spliced into this dim Pilgrim's Progress, or why you're even passingly interested in Robert Johnson or Babyface Nelson, when the film has no real interest in them or in history, but also can't muster any enthusiasm for a full-throttle, sense-making, entertaining pop pastiche. I can't help thinking that the twangy, self-conscious song score seems to have been curated well before the script, such as it is, was even cooked up; and that the fitful allegiance to the Odyssey, that ur-text of Western storytelling, only materializes as a broad, smirking, can't-miss narrative structure to enforce upon a film that nonetheless resists even this most basic template; and that the country music establishment performed an astonishing and willful act of tactical, self-insulating recuperation when it so publicly embraced this soundtrack despite the movie's incessant cretinizing of Southern history, idioms, intelligence, and attitudes. I don't know whether this last bit means that the South and its musical mandarins finally got the last laugh by turning the other cheek and wrenching a dignified, endorsable object out from what is otherwise a cultural blindsiding at least as vicious as what Fargo pulled on Minnesota. Maybe I should be dismayed that all of America, for a few minutes, seemed happy to forsake context entirely and to strum and croon along to this aural almanac of snide appropriation, humming "Oh, Death" right along with that red-caped Klan wizard. I can't even start picking that problem apart until I figure out how Nashville found it in its heart to smile on O Brother when it refused to even cast a glance at Nashville.

There is no gainsaying the production design and the costumes, their eye-catching verisimilitude spiked with a tangy dash of retrovision, or the rustic cinematography that feels equally at home with yellows, ruddy browns, dirty greens, bleachy whites, stagy sepias. An atheist's quip following a baptism—"Even if it did put you right with the Lord, the state of Mississippi's a bit more hard-nosed"—has an excitingly arrogant comic bounce, but then the flattening effects of the lens and of Clooney's chosen performance style, embracing parody without being sure of what, sink the line into an overall atmosphere of smug declamation. The singing scenes can be joyous, especially with Clooney, his mouth totally obscured by a saucer-sized studio mike, belting a song out through his eyebrows. But it's prototypically Coen-ish to cut from this giddily stupid spectacle to a close-up on the machinery that's carving all this sangin' into wax—less because the film is showing off another antique objet than because the Coen Brothers see almost everything in terms of machinery. I'm perfectly fine with that when they're flaunting an impressively tight machine (Blood Simple) or a deliciously haywire machine (Raising Arizona), or making a multi-layered joke about a machinic city in machinic times (Burn After Reading), or countering the pragmatic mindset of the machine with a delirious series of life's inevitable accidents and with something as bracing as an ethics of decency (Fargo). But when a scenario as halting and supercilious as O Brother's or Hudsucker's or The Ladykillers' casts even a short glance at a contraption, any contraption, it can seem like the Coens are only too happy to look away from their own characters, and to sidle up to something groovy and steel-plated instead. I don't always think of "contempt" when I think of them, as many people do, but I do think of that fabulous Libby Gelman-Waxner line where she compares the frustrating affect of John Malkovich in all of his roles circa The Sheltering Sky to an old drag queen too lazy to finish pulling on all of her clothes. Laziness feels like an odd dart to throw at such fussy, industrious, peculiar, and prolific filmmakers, but if the surface aesthetics of O Brother, Where Art Thou? weren't so enticing and coherent in and of themselves, the story and theme and human interest and actorly professionalism—or the uncomfortable lapses of all four—would be even more abrasive than they already are. And then there's the KKK sequence, which is obtuse and unbecoming enough in its decision to plop such a totally random slapstick fracas amid such painful iconography, and then dooms itself to deeper damnation with the pathetic and impossible servility of the black man about to be lynched. In this context, "I ain't never harmed you, neither of you gentlemen," is about as self-incriminating a line as a pair of egghead, all-purpose smart alecks could possibly devise, and it's the reason that the hollow but sporadically engaging O Brother leaves such a sour aftertaste. Whether that's better or worse than no aftertaste at all is up to each of us to judge.

"The South is gonna change: out with the old spiritual mumbo-jumbo, the superstitions, and the backward ways," Clooney informs his nincompoop compadres near the end of the film, and though you detect the film's double-action sarcasm at having so concertedly revived all of these tropes despite "knowing better," the film rarely implies that it has any better idea of what it might have substituted for these passé clichés, even if that meant constructing a totally different film. You could say the same about tonal clichés, including longstanding canards about their own work, in relation to Clooney's earlier critique of his buddies' "relentless negativism." Again, the film pre-emptively tickles itself, but it fails to sterilize the nub of the accusation. Making jokes of your own imputed weaknesses is a dangerous sport, especially when your more earnest work doesn't make a slam-dunk case for your own defense. The standard-issue men of few words and their standard-issue yahoo sidekicks and mothers-in-law in No Country for Old Men, plus the straight-faced but frankly tired regional emblems in the same film, remind us that the Coens, even when they're "trying," are rarely as impressive or as energized in relation to topography or tone as they are, at their best, in relation to genre and character. I think it's the outright paucity of the latter in O Brother that really sinks it, despite the soundscape and the visuals having enough character of their own for several films.

Which is another way of saying, the Coens are not always as smart as they pretend to be, even when they admit that they are pretending, and even when they use their own dramatis personae to set an ostentatiously low bar for their own comparative wit and urbanity. Normally, I'd be only too happy to snuggle up to a movie with lines of dialogue like "She's at the 5 & Dime, buying nickels" or, with great consternation, "These boys desecrated a fiery cross!" But the Coens are like party acquaintances who keep changing the subject and then staring at you quizzically when you can't follow the thread, or when you stop wanting to follow it, but who then block all your exit routes from their obnoxious conversation. They make it damned hard to pan one of their technically prepossessing, unimpeachably distinctive films without collapsing into standby allegations about their coldness and their cruelty. In this case, though, the flabby hitch-hiking montage, the nightmares of strained language that John Goodman has to recite as lines, the pomade jokes that never totally fly, and the sub-Stooges spectacle of Turturro biting his whole fist and squealing like a hog to communicate desire for some water nymphs in the distance make O Brother, Where Art Thou? less intimidating to criticize than it initially appears. The ornate rhetoric and the air of studied proficiency are customarily so potent in a Coen Brothers picture that they almost dare you to offer too simple a rejoinder. But let's try: O Brother sounds great, looks luscious, and has some moments of shambolic charm, but it's also desperately performed, indifferently directed, and parodistically ill-structured, with a streak of real callousness slashed right down its middle. If you're so obviously capable of performing at a higher level, and have so frequently done so before and since, then how do you explain it when you stack your own decks and cherry-pick your own teammates and still play such a mediocre game? C–

(in January 2001: B–)

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Adapted Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen
Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): George Clooney

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