If Mad magazine had attempted to do “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” the result might be “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The Coen brothers’ new movie is a monkeyshines ramble through the iconography of the Depression South. It invokes the images familiar from the photographs of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange — shanty shacks, ragamuffin children, big-bellied bosses in summer suits — as well as books and movies of the era, like “The Grapes of Wrath” and “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” and the musicals of Busby Berkeley.
It pauses for a nod to the musicians recorded by the blues archivist Alan Lomax or later collected by Harry Smith in his “Anthology of American Music,” and pauses again to put a twist on the myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads. And it encompasses the sort of kitsch touchstones so embedded in our collective memory that the Coens seem to be teasing them to the surface. This is a movie where a tough-talking little kid wields a shotgun and drives a getaway car; where a fleeing bank robber brandishes a Tommy gun and taunts, “Come and get me, coppers!”; where apple pies cool on windowsills and scoundrels are literally run out of town on a rail.
That’s as fitting a description of any of the good-spiritedness at the heart of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And it’s a measure of what Joel (who directed) and Ethan (who produced and co-wrote the script with his brother) Coen have achieved here that you can speak of their movie as having a heart.
With the exception of “Raising Arizona” (which I love), my reaction to the Coens’ movies has ranged from boredom to loathing. I detested the way they used the Minnesota accents in “Fargo” to classify the characters as morons, and the slanders perpetrated upon Clifford Odets and William Faulkner in “Barton Fink.” (I’ll never forget one young admirer of that movie telling me that she and her contemporaries knew nothing about those men, so what did the brothers’ inventions matter?)
The convict-heroes of “O Brother” aren’t worldly. They’re yokels, and their astonished reactions to the scrapes they land in is the chief source of the movie’s jokes. But there’s a way to laugh at yokels without meanness, and though meanness has traditionally been the Coens’ specialty, it’s mostly absent here.
Even the caricatured supporting players — like a blind radio-station manager whose dead eyes stare off in opposite directions, or a dime-store manager whose jowls flap as he warns one of the cons to “stay out of the Wool’s Worth” — are so robustly odd that you laugh you ask yourself, “What the hell was that?”
The movie takes its title from Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels.” In that film, the movie-director hero (Joel McCrea) plans to abandon comedy to make a film called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” — something that will prove him a “serious” artist. The Coens have no intention of abandoning comedy. The opening credits claim the film is “Based on ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer.” Like the credit claiming “Fargo” was based on a true story (it wasn’t), that’s a Coen joke. The brothers recently admitted to never having read “The Odyssey.” Perhaps they’ve spent some time with the Classics Comics version. “O Brother” has a soothsayer and a Cyclops, watery Sirens who lure journeying men to doom on the rocks and a hero whose middle name is Ulysses.
But this adventure of a trio of petty criminals who escape from a Mississippi chain gang in search of buried treasure is a cockeyed — in more ways than one — road movie. It’s a little like listening to a reminiscence from an old, addled relative who, over the years, has taken a shine to telling tall tales.
The leader of the trio, Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) fancies himself the brains of the outfit. Vanity may be the reason Everett sleeps with a hair net on to keep his pomaded locks in place, but you wouldn’t be surprised to learn he thought it helped contain his bursting brain. In the vast scheme of things, though, Everett is only a few bricks closer to a full load than his cohorts, Pete (John Turturro), who has a his hair-trigger temper, and sweet, simpleminded Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson).
On their backwoods picaresque, they encounter a duplicitous Bible salesman (John Goodman, with a lethal good-ol’-boy smile that looks as if it would never falter even as he ate you alive); the state’s scheming governor (Charles Durning, whose big pot belly oozes corruption but who, like Jackie Gleason, becomes light as a feather when he breaks into an impromptu jig); and Everett’s estranged wife (Holly Hunter), who’s about to take the couple’s seven daughters and marry an upright young hotshot.
They make contact with even more people after they pose as a singing group called the Soggy Bottom Boys and record a backwoods tune to raise some quick cash. The song turns into a statewide smash without their ever realizing they’re at the top of the hit parade.
It’s hard to imagine the Coens will ever find actors as suited to their sideshow style than these wonderfully naive chumps. Turturro hasn’t fully learned how to turn his bug-eyed rage to comedy; he radiates a hostility that threatens to overwhelm the movie. But at moments, as in a scene in which he appears to warn his buddies of approaching danger, he has a forlorn, put-upon air that makes him the vision of comic misery. Tim Blake Nelson, whom I know only as a writer/director (a few years back, he made the movie “Eye of God,” which featured a knockout performance from Martha Plimpton), is as much of an oddball revelation as Spike Jonze was in “Three Kings.”
With the guilelessness of a newborn and the disposition of a blissful old coot, Nelson has the sleepy innocence of a baby basset hound; you can imagine his droopy face getting longer with the years. Everything he did, from his pop-eyed incredulity to his patches of calm obliviousness made me laugh. It’s a gem of a comic performance.
And George Clooney is a marvel. I suspect that when an actor is as good-looking as Clooney is, and willing to play as foolish as he does here, he’s not possessed of much vanity. He could easily settle for being a straight Hollywood leading man. But you don’t work with directors like Steven Soderbergh, David O. Russell and the Coens if you’re not willing to take chances. In movie after movie, he seems nowhere near suggesting the limits of his range.
Sporting Clark Gable’s pencil mustache, and even affecting that peculiar smacking delivery that always made Gable sound as if he had just polished off a rack of ribs, Clooney is the handsomest rube in the history of movies. He’s doing a riff here on the early Gable (of movies such as “Red Dust”) who turned his impossibly masculine sexiness into a sleek joke. Lapsing into a sing-song baritone and peppering his speech with words that make you suspect a well-thumbed Funk and Wagnalls is hanging around his family homestead, Everett is a fool who imagines himself a big shot.
Clooney has figured out that the secret of comic fatuousness is to play it as straight as possible, and playing straight in the cartoon world of the Coens is no easy task. Everett’s imitations of suavity and erudition mark him as a sucker ripe for the taking, so you laugh extra hard at gorgeous George Clooney playing a little man certain he’s meant for success. It’s as if he were using that Gable mustache to tickle the audience.
“O Brother” might get bigger laughs if it were less of a ramble and more of a spree, but it wouldn’t be nearly as affecting. The Coens don’t want just to call up the Depression South, they want to bask in it a little. The relaxed tone does wonders. The Coens don’t bat you on the head with flashy cutting or camerawork, don’t push the artificiality of a made-up world as they usually do.
The movie may seem to flirt with desecration — it plays some of the most poignant imagery of the Depression for laughs. The pictures of the Depression poor in Evans and Lange are about as close to sacred as secular images can get in American life. But the movie turns the Depression into an American fairy tale where the hound dogs are yappin’ at your rear end as you make a beeline for the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
The audacity of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is that the Coens view the mythology of the Depression through the indigenous American toughness Kael was writing about: the willingness to make fun of our past travails and bull our way through the present. That healthy, cheerful disrespect was, of course, one of the things that kept Americans going to the movies in the Depression. It characterized the chorus girls in “Golddiggers of 1933″ stealing their neighbor’s milk; the wisecracking forgotten men in “My Man Godfrey”; and the sassy gangsters of “The Public Enemy” and “Scarface.”
In “O Brother’s” movie’s most outrageous sequence, white-robed Klansman chant like the Yellow Winkies in “The Wizard of Oz” and move in choreographed patterns around their intended victim like the dancers in “42nd Street.” It’s as if everyone in this America dreams of being in the movies, even the Kluxers.
But there’s lyricism here, too. The scene where Everett, Pete and Delmar are waylaid by three lovelies (the “Sireens,” as Delmar calls them) washing out their clothes in a river is typical of the movie’s approach. It’s funny, but it’s also mesmerizingly lovely. The women move slowly and deliberately toward these cons on the lam, singing “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” (actually sung by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch). The song starts up again just when you’re sure the last notes have wafted away on the breeze, and you know the men would try to brush it off as a dream if they could just get their brains together long enough to signal their eyes to blink.
“O Brother” is the first Coen movie that makes it possible to talk about not just emotion but beauty. Shot by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins so that the vistas of fields and long dusty roads seem to reach us with their color diffused by the blasting Southern sun, “O Brother” doesn’t subjugate its sources to fodder for another of the Coen’s malevolent Rube Goldberg universes.
The lovingly compiled soundtrack (some of which was produced by T-Bone Burnett) is a beauty, too, mixing bluegrass and spiritual classics from Harry McClintock and the Stanley Brothers, with contemporary artists like Krauss, Welch, Dan Tyminski (of Krauss’ band Union Station) and the Fairfield Four. In May the artists who contributed performed the music from the movie in a concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, which was filmed for a documentary by D.A. Pennebaker.
A Baptist procession to the river is accompanied by the golden voice of Krauss singing “Down to the River to Pray,” and the Soggy Bottom Boys’s big hit is a bouncier version of the Stanley Brothers’ classic “Man of Constant Sorrow.” The music may not sound as fatalistic as bluegrass, at its darkest and most sorrowful, can. But the music both chosen and created for the movie shares an earth-deep perseverance that is the flip side of the hero’s ability to come out on top. From moment to moment, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is a pleasure. But when the Coens are really cooking, when the acting and the conception and the music all come together, it’s something more — Dogpatch rapture.