Published January 1, 2001
Over the opening credits of the Coen brothers’ new movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? we hear Harry McLintock singing “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” a song which (I seem to remember) was once an anthem of the revolutionary International Workers of the World or “Wobblies” and which enjoyed a renewed vogue during the Depression of the 1930s. The idea, like that of “Pie in the Sky,” was to ridicule religion’s promise of Heaven which, in good Marxist fashion, the singer considered to be a fabrication of the ruling classes designed to keep the workers content with their miserable lot on earth. Like so much of the revolutionary iconography of the last century, this bitter and sardonic ditty is now, the movie tells us, a fashion statement. Poverty, prisons, chain gangs, bank robberies, political corruption—all familiar images of the South in the 1930s—are all now, like the Mississippi blues, merely chic materials for a designer movie.
Nor do the ironies stop there. The title is taken from the film that the socially conscience-stricken director played by Joel McCrea in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941) wants to make—until he actually meets a few of the downtrodden objects of his solicitude and decides that the best thing he can do for them is to make escapist comedies that will help them forget their troubles. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is thus, almost by definition, a movie that should never have been made. The Coens’ little joke is to have made it as precisely the sort of escapist fantasy that Sturges’s hero abandoned it in favor of. Only now, in the midst of national wealth that would have been simply unimaginable to the hard-up ‘30s, what we escape to is not the Big Rock Candy Mountain but Mississippi during the Depression, rendered safe—indeed, mythical and archetypal —by a plot based on Homer’s Odyssey.
If you haven’t already been put off by the preceding description, you should probably go to this movie, for (as always with the Coens’ pictures) there is much to enjoy in it. The story, it’s true is too chaotic and silly to engage us. Though derived from Homeric epic, the film is far from being a reverent (or even a respectful) treatment of same. Part of the problem is that a 106-minute movie is just not big enough for epic, so that the little stopovers with the Sirens (three improbably pretty girls washing their laundry in a stream, who are thus conflated with Nausicaa as well as Circe, since one of our heroes is apparently turned into a toad) or the Cyclops (John Goodman as a one-eyed Bible salesman) are made to seem even sillier than they would otherwise be. But the Coens’ basic lack of narrative seriousness makes epic impossible anyway. The plot is really just the thread on which a series of songs and jokes are strung like beads.
What makes the film worth seeing is that the songs and jokes are (mostly) very good ones. The former, under the supervision of T-Bone Burnett, have the authentic feel of the ur-country music of the 1930s and a great deal of poignancy as a result. The latter have the characteristic brilliance of a Coen brothers script. Some of the best jokes come out of the election campaign between the incumbent governor, Menelaus, “Pappy,” O’Daniel (Charles Durning) and the reform candidate, Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall), who tells a rally: “The choice, she’s clear: Pappy O’Dan’l, slave of the interests; Homer Stokes, servant of the little man,” And then he turns to a midget wielding his trademark broom and says: “Ain’t that right, little man?”
“He ain’t lyin’!” says the midget to wild applause.
Meanwhile, Pappy’s idiot son says: “People like that re-form, Daddy. Maybe we oughtta get us some.”
In addition a word should be said about the excellent performances of George Clooney, an actor I have always found it difficult to like, as the hero, Ulysses Everett McGill, and his two sidekicks, whose counterparts in the original Odyssey you may, like me, have forgotten, Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson). None of them has a part with any real substance to it, but each does as much as it is possible to do with a caricature. Given that their job is merely to represent Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest after what is rapidly becoming a too well-worn movie convention (perhaps because the stupid are among the few human types it is still safe to laugh at), each in his own way manages to suggest personality and even sweetness lurking beneath the veneer of idiocy.
But generally speaking the film is a great disappointment. Like the Coens’ last, The Big Lebowski, or their earlier Hudsucker Proxy, it is a brilliant movie with no purpose at all, apart from calling attention to its own brilliance. And without anything much in the way of a point (not to mention something that borders on contempt for religion), the patronizing attitude of the filmmakers towards the idiot yokels whose doings they chronicle becomes offensive in a way that it never quite did (for me) in the morally serious Fargo. The small-town Minnesotans in that movie may have talked funny, but they were obviously meant to be seen as good and decent people whose snowbound community acted like white blood cells to overwhelm and neutralize the moral toxins introduced into their midst. The rural Mississippians in O Brother are only good for laughing at.