THEY HAVE A PLAN, BUT NOT A CLUE.
In Preston Sturges’s classic film Sullivan’s Travels (1942), Joel McCrea’s character, a Hollywood movie director, sets out to experience “the real world” as a way of preparing himself for his next film. He believes that great art can only be created in an atmosphere of social realism, but he is proven wrong. The title of his film? “Brother, Where Art Thou”. The Coen brothers borrowed that title for this comedy whose purpose is to basically prove Sturges’s point once again.
The world may be suffering, it may be thoroughly depressed, but if humor and fantasy are used in the depiction of that misery, aren’t we all better off?
The setting is the South during the Depression. The three protagonists of this tale are Everett (George Clooney), Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro) who are all part of a chain gang. The convicts seize the opportunity when it appears and escape – their journey (and search for a fortune) becomes a series of strange vignettes that play out under the sweltering sun; they even get to record an old-time song called “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” that becomes a major hit all over the great state of Mississippi, but they remain unaware of that.
The writers supposedly based their story on Homer’s poem “The Odyssey”; they claim never to have actually read it, but the film is nevertheless full of references to it. This is all unusually ambitious for the Coens and it’s great to see that it’s so much more than just a bundle of funny characters and crazy ideas. The old South is presented here as a place where one perhaps grew up but left a long time ago – it’s rural, backwards, simple, but charming and quaint. Cinematographer Roger Deakins lets that proud, marvelous but hopelessly conservative part of the country simmer in a golden light.
First of all a fantasy
Certain negative aspects, such as corruption in politics, the Klan and poverty, are a reminder of reality, but this is first of all a fantasy. The Klan meeting becomes an absurd dance act where John Goodman’s Cyclops meets his destiny, and the gubernatorial campaign turns into political theater of the most ridiculous kind (complete with a dwarf and a broom). The South is famous for its “tall tales”, fantastical stories that might or might not be true, and this one is funny, sweet and boisterous.
This is also the film where Clooney really proved to the world that he is a modern-day Cary Grant and Clark Gable rolled into one. He has even laid his hands on Gable’s mustache, and kudos to him for that. He is hilarious as the self-appointed leader of the runaway trio, who can easily talk himself out of any jam but unfortunately is not as clever as he thinks he is; his obsession with his hair is a liability. Turturro and Nelson are great as the two dim-wits who loyally follow their leader with the big words; I’m also glad to see Charles Durning join the company of fat, older actors who always play Men With Power in Coen movies.
The music is a critical part of the film, bluegrass tunes that also graced a very successful, award-winning soundtrack album. The songs do not exactly propel the story forward, but they provide a priceless accompaniment to Everett, Pete and Delmar’s quest for a bit of happiness. The reason why a song like “I Am a Man in Constant Sorrow” becomes a hit is because people can’t get enough of those “old-timey” songs. One of the characters in the film tells us that, and it’s true. All times become rose-colored, but at least its music and the feelings of nostalgia remain true.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2000-U.S. 107 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Ethan Coen. Directed by Joel Coen. Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Cinematography: Roger Deakins. Cast: George Clooney (Ulysses Everett McGill), John Turturro (Pete), Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar O’Donnel), Holly Hunter, Charles Durning, John Goodman.
Golden Globe: Best Actor (Clooney).
Last word: “It pretends to be a big important movie, but the grandiosity is obviously a joke. It is what it is, it’s a comedy. There is a chain-gang interlude in ‘Sullivan’s Travels’, but that’s it. […] We tend to do period stuff, because it helps make it one step removed from boring everyday reality.” (Ethan Coen, The Guardian)