O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Odysseus meets Depression-era Mississippi
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Touchstone Pictures/Universal Pictures
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
USA, 2001
The power of myth is such that it can endure countless adaptations. Hence Disney's Hercules, Marvel Comics' Hercules, and every movie and TV series starring the likes of Lou Ferrigno, Kevin Sorbo, and anyone else they can fit into the Lion of Olympus's clothes.

What's truly exceptional is when someone takes a myth and reworks it into something unique while preserving the appeal of the original. Dragonball, until it started to resemble the WWF, is one example; James Joyce's Ulysses is another. In each of these cases, prior knowledge of Monkey Goes West and Homer's The Odyssey are bonuses, but not necessary to enjoy the work.

And so it is with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) and his traveling companions Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro) recreate a miniature Odyssey in Depression-era Mississippi. The result is part road movie, part musical, and part Looney Tune, as Everett and his pals escape from a chain gang and try to make their way to the loot Everett stashed before he was arrested.

Once again, Clooney plays a charismatic, smooth-talking leader of men, which is fitting for Ulysses; only here, he's the Moe to Pete and Delmar's Larry and Curly. As they make their way through the backwoods and into town, dogged by Sheriff Cooley (Daniel van Bargen, menacing as Hades), they find themselves encountering all kinds of interesting people, from the blind seer who first warns them of their quest's success and failure, to the mesmerizingly beautiful sirens who sing to them and lure them to... well, it's more fun if you see it.

Lovingly shot to look like a faded photo, it eventually becomes clear that there are two myths wrapped up in O Brother: The story of The Odyssey, of course, and the mythologized transitional South. Corrupt politicians, con men, and the Ku Klux Klan are all here in their archetypical glory, hilariously hewing to the norms laid down by the movies of the last fifty years (though I doubt you've ever seen a Klan rally that almost verges on a Busby Berkeley number). The Coens blend the two forms seamlessly, binding them with luscious songs, serving as both Greek chorus and a heady reminder of the role of music in the spiritual and secular lives of Southern blacks and whites of the era.

Once the dust has settled by movie's end, you realize how remarkable the Coens' achievement is. They've taken an epic and, miraculously, found the humor in it. By the same token, they've taken the absurd character of Everett and made us realize that underneath his buffoonery, he is every bit as noble as Homer's Odysseus. It's a rare feat, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? is all the more pleasurable for it.

A Critical Eye exclusive (January 14, 2001)
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