Dir: Joel Coen. US. 2000. 102mins.
Prod co: Working Title. US dist: Buena Vista . Int'l sales: UPI (00 44 207 307 1300). Exec prods: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Prod: Ethan Coen. Co-prod: John Cameron. Scr: Ethan Coen,Joel Coen. DoP: Roger Deakins. Prod des: Dennis Gassner. Eds: Roderick Jaynes, Tricia Cooke. Music: T Bone Burnett. Main cast: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning, Wayne Duvall.
The hero of Preston Sturges' 1941 comedy Sullivan's Travels is an idealistic film director intent on making a social conscience movie with the high-minded title O Brother, Where Art Thou' - to the dismay of his producers who would much prefer a sequel to his last big success, Ants In Your Pants. But when he goes undercover, 'looking for trouble' as a tramp, he realises that the suffering masses get much more pleasure and comfort from simple Disney cartoons.
The Coen Brothers' version of O Brother is, apparently, the one they think Sturges' Sullivan might have made as a result of his experiences. And that's not all: a title card also proudly announces that it's 'based on The Odyssey by Homer'. This mind-boggling combination yields a witty comedy, more lightweight than its mighty pedigree indicates, which is highly unlikely to achieve popularity of Mickey Mouse proportions (though Clooney's presence and its sunny tone should increase its appeal), but should sit very snugly in the film-makers' established niche markets.
The story begins as three prisoners, Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) and his two dim-bulb fellow prisoners (Turturro and Nelson), become fugitives from a chain gang. After meeting a railroad worker, a blind seer who informs them that they will 'travel a long and difficult road fraught with peril', they go into hiding with a farmer. He promptly informs on them, but they make their escape again.
Their subsequent adventures involve a bevy of born-again Christians, who inspire Nelson and Turturro to wash away their sins; a black singer-guitarist (King) who believes he has sold his soul to the Devil and with whom the others, under the name The Soggy Bottom Boys, cut a hillbilly record which becomes a huge hit; a one-eyed Bible salesman (Goodman) who turns out to be a malevolent contemporary Cyclops; and an election campaign, one of whose candidates, named Homer Stokes (Duvall), also leads the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Clooney's main mission, however, is to win back his wife (Hunter) 'called Penny after her counterpart in The Odyssey' from her new suitor.
Clooney, who has been pursuing increasingly bold career choices, delivers here a delightfully self-mocking comic performance as a smooth, mustachioed type with an addiction to Dapper Dan hair pomade and flowery rhetoric, and more than a passing resemblance to Clark Gable. Anything but heroic, he's a charming rogue whose likeability remains undiminished by his foolishness and overblown intellectual pretensions. Turturro and Nelson are amusing as a brace of relatively undefined hayseeds. The well-cast supporting characters are the Coens' usual array of colourful eccentrics.
Fans of the brothers' work will have a field day spotting in-references to Sturges' movie and the often ingenious reworking of details from the Greek classic. Further pleasures are supplied by a foot-tapping period soundtrack of bluegrass, hillbilly music and spirituals and Deakins' glorious Cinemascope images of Mississippi, though the very broad rural Deep South accents of most characters may prove an initial stumbling block for audiences in certain English-speaking markets.