O Brother, Where Art Thou?
***.8 GM
Starring: George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning, Michael Badalucco, Chris Thomas King, Stephen Root

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I'm what might be called a 'Johnny Come Lately' to the whole Coen Brothers thing. The first one I saw was "Fargo," and although I liked it, most of the subtle stuff flew over my head at the time, and it didn't bowl me over. I kept hearing great things about "Barton Fink" and "Raising Arizona," but I didn't feel compelled to see them. It wasn't until I was shown "Miller's Crossing" that I realized that these guys knew what they were doing, and what they were doing was really cool. "The Hudsucker Proxy" was a barrel of fun, but I still resisted "Raising Arizona" for a while, and I'm not sure why... but when I finally saw it, two things made it great for me - The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse and the reaction John Goodman and William Forsythe have when they realize they've left a man behind. "The Big Lebowski" was high-larious, too. I still need to see "Barton Fink." And "Blood Simple," for that matter.

But now, we've got "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" - the name of which is taken from an old flick called "Sullivan's Travels" that I saw not too long ago. That movie was about a fluff comedy director that was drooling to make a great tragic drama that went by the same name as this latest Coen effort. But that comedy director felt he was too rich and soft to make the film, so he went out to 'live as a hobo' to see how the other half actually existed, but every attempt he made to do that wound up leading him right back to Pamperedville. He even got the foxy Veronica Lake to pal around with him. Then, through happenstance, he was mistakenly thought dead and wound up on an actual chain gang, full of misery and woe, and he discovered the true value of making comedies when he saw that it was the only thing in the lives of his fellow convicts that could bring them any sort of happiness and laughter.

Yet, this film is hardly a gritty prison tragedy, although it definitely feints that way a few times. It's the story of three prison escapees - Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) - in hot pursuit of 1.2 million smackeroos in treasure that's in danger of being lost forever due to flooding for hydro-electrification where he buried it, and it's loosely based on The Odyssey, so it has Sirens and John Goodman as a cyclops, etc. But I haven't read that opus, so I don't know if there's more to what's happening here than I'm getting.

Clooney has finally shaken that occasionally charismatic but extremely limiting head-bob acting style and has really done a great job with the chatty, worldly-in-a-half-assed-way Everett, who's also on a mission to win back his ex-wife (Holly Hunter) and keep her from marrying a schmuck (Ray McKinnon) that happens to be running the gubernatorial campaign of Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall), whose midget-and-a-broom platform threatens to unseat Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning), whose anger and frustration with the morons in his brain trust is nothing short of hilarious. Hooray for run-on sentences. But Clooney was so good, it just reinforced my opinion that the guy HAS the ability to do a good Batman, but he needs a script, director and cast worth a damn. Yes, I can find a way to turn every review into something about comic books.

Turturro gets the ridiculous scream in the Goodman/Forsythe tradition here, and throughout he shows the immense range he has as an actor by playing the surly hillbilly that's not all that quick on the uptake. Even slower in the head is Nelson's Delmar, who nevertheless is a paragon of hope and pleasantness, optimistic at every situation and willing to believe in the most fantastic of stories, not to mention in the existence of wizards.

One drawback was my previous exposure to Daniel Von Bargen due to occasional viewings of that "Malcolm In The Middle" deal, in which he plays a general parody of the type of character he portrays in this film - the spooky officer in dogged, determined and disturbingly quiet pursuit of our three vagabond heroes. Thus, he never really elicited any real feelings of menace or danger leading up to the final confrontation, since seeing him brought to mind little brats fighting with each other over water slides. Thankfully, he doesn't show up all that often, and when he does finally catch his prey, the sense of impending doom becomes very real and frightening.

The music in this film is also excellent, and I'm far from a picker and a grinner. I used to be subjected to Hee Haw as a child, which gives me a lingering distaste for country-style twang. But this is 'old-timey' roots music, what I've heard called 'white man's soul' (as if such a thing existed), and the Soggy Bottom Boys' big hit is understandably so, being as groovy as it is. The Sirens' song and the congregation hymn are both particularly stirring, and it's all used extremely well to create great moments of mood and free-wheeling that move back and forth surprisingly smoothly.

The more I think about this film, the better it gets. A good time was had by me, even with a couple of general plot predictabilities. The unique characters are generally what makes a Coen brothers film, and this one is no exception. I genuinely cared what happened to these guys. They're adventurers, indeed, and their style is a lost art these days. More Coen brothers goodness!

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