(Like All Someone Asked Me To Be An Expert In Somethings, this entry is written to be spoken aloud and with a much more general less film literate audience in mind [I dear reader know you know what Sullivan's Travels is. And if you don't...] In this case I think the result came out so different from my usual style that I considered not posting it. But I think it makes for an interesting experiment so there you have it.)
The name O’ Brother Where Art Thou comes from the Preston Sturges Golden Age comedy Sullivan’s Travels.
In the film Joel McCrea, plays a successful director of studio comedies who becomes obsessed with directing a serious film called “O’ Brother Where Art Thou” to prove he’s a serious artist. To research the film he goes on the road as a hobo, and ends up in prison, where after watching a cartoon and the affect it has on his fellow inmates, that comedy can be much just as important as drama and can end up doing much more practical good in the world, then simply reminding "The Common Man" of their misery.
This has never been a lesson The Coen Brothers have needed.
Far from being pigeonholed as comedic or serious, most people are baffled by the exceedingly thin line between comedy and drama, in every Coen Brothers film. Their darker films like Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and A Serious Man all have moments of deep comic ludicrousness. In the meantime their comedies like Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading, or The Big Lebowski are filled with dark moments of mayhem, murder and other assorted acts of bad behavior and cruel fate.
Oddly enough both of these things, the darkness in their comic films, and the comedy in their dark films stem from the same place. There is a deep vein of comic almost cosmic absurdity running through each of The Coen Brother’s films. It’s why Larry Gopnick in the depths of his Book Of Job reenactment is forced to cry “I do not want Santana Abaraxas.” It’s why no one in Blood Simple ever really knows just what happened, why Leonard Smalls kills everything in his path in Raising Arizona, and why their lightest film, The Hudsucker Proxy opens with a suicide.
And it’s that vein that runs throughout the entirety of O’ Brother Where Art Thou, whether Ulysses Evert McGill cares to admit it or not.
O’ Brother Where Art Thou is loosely structured after The Odysessy, and The Coen’s use the events of the poem to through just one damn thing after another at their hapless central trio. There are encounters with Cyclops, Lotus Eaters and sirens as well as a few other distinctly Coenesque touches like The livestock hating Baby Faced Nelson, and a vengeful Woolworths.
Throughout all this are all the usual pleasures of The Coens. Their unparrelled screenplays, very few writers can get laughs from cadence alone. As well as the beautiful golden cinematography of long time collaborater Roger Deakins and the impeccable taste in music and cast.
The film has one of the Coen’s strongest, not just with the crucial trio of Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro, but John Goodman as well in what sadly turned out to be his last performance with The Coens, Holly Hunter, and my personal favorite, Charles Durning, more or less reprising his role from The Big Lebowski as the corrupt Pappy O’Daniel. One of the long line of corpulent venal men at the center of The Coen Brother’s movies. It was Roger Ebert who observed that perhaps the central image of The Coen Brother’s films is that of a venal powerful man behind a desk and from the moment Pappy introduces himself with a hearty “Thank God your mammy died givin' birth. If she'd have seen you, she'd have died o' shame.” Durning cements himself as one of the best.
The thing that truly sets O’ Brother Where Art Thou apart, is that for all of the disasters, or OB-STACK-ALLS that beset our heroes, everything more or less turns out well.
As I said before, so many of the Coen’s films are absurdist portraits of things spinning further out of control then it’s beleaguered characters can even comprehend. Fate is an indifferent, if not down right malicious force. The Message Of O’ Brother Where Art Thou is just the opposite. Sometimes, fate is kind, even in a film by the Coen Brothers.
Have you ever wanted to listen to four guys whale on one guy for not having seen The Thing?