O Brother, Where Art Thou?
dir. Joel Coen
Opens Fri Dec 29 at the Egyptian.

PRESTON STURGES' 1942 movie Sullivan's Travels is a comedy about a director who wants to make a serious film. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a sheltered but successful director of Hollywood farces with titles like Ants in Your Plants of 1939 and Thanks for Yesterday. His dream is to make a movie of substance, something that will hold a mirror to life, a mirror to the suffering of humanity: an "important" film with the "important" title O Brother, Where Art Thou? When it's pointed out to him that he doesn't know the first thing about suffering, he hits the road with 10¢ in his pocket to experience the hard life of the common man firsthand. He eventually learns that people who really are suffering don't want to go see a movie that explores and exploits their misery; they would much rather have a good laugh. Consequently, he decides against making O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Enter the Coen brothers. Picking up where Sullivan's Travels leaves off, with the idea that people would rather see a comedy than a social realist drama, they've gone ahead and made a version of O Brother, Where Art Thou? that John Sullivan would be proud of, if he weren't fictional, and maybe even Preston Sturges, if he were still alive. Steeped in film history and always looking for an oddly intellectual way into their stories, the Coens have crafted their film in the supposed style of Sullivan's comedies of the '30s and '40s. The result has the exaggerated acting and broad comedy of the kind that's often found in a film within a film. Of course, instead of showing a series of clips, they show us the whole damn thing.

Set in Depression-era Mississippi, George Clooney stars as Everett Ulysses McGill, a suave and well-groomed petty criminal doing hard time on a chain gang. Shackled to Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), he convinces them to join him in escaping by promising to split a fortune in buried treasure with them. Along the way, they pick up a talented blues guitarist (Chris Thomas King) who's sold his soul to the devil; they record a song together as the Soggy Bottom Boys; and they meet up with a variety of people, like a one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman), legendary gangster Babyface Nelson (Michael Badalucco), a slew of politicians, and the Ku Klux Klan.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a road movie, and in acknowledgment of that, the Coen brothers claim it was based on the granddaddy of all road pictures, The Odyssey, by Homer. There are some similarities, too. The trio runs across three seductive sirens washing clothes by the river; Goodman is obviously the large Cyclops; and the hero--who's middle name is Ulysses, the Latin equivalent of Odysseus--needs to get home to protect his wife from unworthy suitors. But these are superficial quotes from The Odyssey, thrown in to increase the humor. When the movie played at the Cannes Film Festival, the Coens were almost bragging about the fact that they never read The Odyssey, and just threw in references to the book whenever it was convenient.

No, the true inspiration for the movie is the music. At the Coen's bidding, T-Bone Burnett collected all sorts of music from the era and from the region, and it's a joy to hear so much bluegrass in a major motion picture. From the signature song of the Soggy Bottom Boys, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," to the sirens' song (sung by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch), to all the music that pops up in the background and the foreground, blues and bluegrass are as important to the story as the energy of the performances. (There's even a sonic slam on Walt Disney's alleged Aryan leanings: As the Klan members march in formation, they're chanting something that sounds suspiciously like a Disney tune.)

Though O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn't look like a movie made in the '30s, it looks even less like any movie being made today. One thing is for sure, though. It's a comedy with no overt social message, which would make John Sullivan proud. Then again, it doesn't need one. The buoyant music and ham-handed performances are enough to lift anyone's spirits. It may not be Ants in Your Plants of 1939--but then again, maybe it is.

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