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'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'

The Coen brothers create a wacky Odyssey of their own

Friday, January 12, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In a world of increasingly safe moviemaking -- sequels, Dr. Seuss adaptations, teen romances, crass comedies and one built around the pressing question, "Dude, where's my car?" -- the Coen brothers never play it safe.

'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'

RATING: PG-13 for some violence and language.

STARRING: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson





And with "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" they are so far into left field that they're out of the ballpark entirely. For creative types, that's not a bad place to be.

But will moviegoers mooning over Mel Gibson or delighting in Sandra Bullock's transformation from beastly to beautiful really flock to see a Depression-era adaptation of "The Odyssey?" Even if it stars George Clooney?

You tell me.

For those whose memories of high-school English were pushed aside to accommodate the names of the "Survivor" castaways, the Greek poet Homer composed "The Odyssey" probably in the 700s B.C. The epic poem takes place over a decade and focuses on Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) and his journey home to wife Penelope after fighting in the Trojan War.

The main character is a loquacious, debonair fellow named Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) who is part of a Mississippi chain gang during the Depression. He and the prisoners who share his shackles -- Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro) -- make a break for it.

As a blind prophet they encounter on the train tracks predicts, they will have to travel a road "fraught with peril." And that's just what they do, as they set out to recover buried treasure and reunite Ulysses with his wife, Penny (Holly Hunter).

In their wanderings through the Deep South, they encounter a farmer whose wife has run off, cops hot on their trail, a religious group baptizing followers in the river, a young blues musician (Chris Thomas King), yet another blind man who operates a radio station and has a weakness for old-timey music, a governor (Charles Durning) running for reelection and his opponent, three sirens beating laundry on the rocks and beckoning the men with their sweet voices, a one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman) and some cross-burning Klansmen.

You don't need to know that Goodman's character apparently was inspired by the one-eyed giant in the poem. Or that the suspected transformation of a man into a toad might be a twist on an enchantress turning men into pigs.

You don't need to know anything about "The Odyssey" to enjoy the golden fields, the music masterminded by T Bone Burnett, the exacting re-creation of 1930s life or the enterprising Clooney character who goes to great lengths to be a "Dapper Dan Man." He uses smelly Dapper Dan men's pomade and dons a hairnet as he preens and styles. He's even got a little Clark Gable mustache going on.

"O Brother" is a wacky soup, an audacious, often entertaining experiment that evaporates as you exit the theater door. It has sight gags! And literary references! And a wonderful quartet called the Soggy Bottom Boys that, when the singers don fake hillbilly beards, look a lot like the Darling family from the old "Andy Griffith Show." (Clooney's voice, by the way, is dubbed proving that one man cannot have it all.)

Director and co-writer Joel Coen says of the comedy, "In terms of tone, it does sort of resemble 'Raising Arizona' more than it does 'Fargo' or 'Miller's Crossing.' There aren't any bodies in wood chippers or people throwing up blood." And for that we are thankful.

This is a movie that has split critics widely. One Chicago reviewer named it his No. 1 movie of the year; Entertainment Weekly gave it an F. I'm somewhere in the middle. It's daring and well-cast but it doesn't stick to your reviewing ribs the way some other movies do.

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