The movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" may be a perfect metaphor for America-- a slightly disorganized, but good hearted, Southern Gospel version of Homer's Odyssey, written and directed by a couple of guys named Cohen.
Is this a great country, or what?
The Cohen brothers-- Joel directing, and writing with producer Ethan-- should hire the Monty Python comic to intone, "And now for something completely different," before each of their highly original movies. From the brilliant "Fargo," to the under rated, "Hudsucker Proxy," to the darn near interminable "Barton Fink," the results of their vision may not always be successful, but it is ALWAYS their own.
The title "O Brother Where Art Thou?" is taken from the great Preston Sturges comedy, "Sullivan's Travels" in which Joel McRea plays a director who quits making "mere" comedies in order to do something more Socially Significant and comes up with this pretentious title.
If making people laugh is a public service, then the Cohens can consider their careers worthwhile, based on "O Brother" alone. But this movie has themes of Christian redemption, God's providence, and a great folksy Gospel music score, to boot.
George Clooney plays Ulysses Everitt McGill. He imagines himself a brainy guy, but his 10 cent head can't quite keep up with the two dollar words he uses. He leads an escape from a Depression-era Mississippi chain gang, by promising the two men he's chained to, the constantly angry Pete Hogwallop (Cohen regular John Turturro) and the dim but good-natured Delmar O'Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), shares of the million dollars in loot he has stashed.
So, Ulysses and his crew set out on a quest to retrieve the loot, and restore their leader to the loving bosom of his wife (Holly Hunter) and seven daughters.
Soon after their escape, the trio encounters a baptismal service in a river. The promise of sins forgiven is irresistible to Delmar and Pete, but Ulysses is scornful, "God may have wiped your slate clean," he scoffs, "But the state of Mississippi takes a harder view."
Delmar and Pete do their level best to live up to their salvation, but the temptations are great. One thing they do to earn legitimate money is "sing into a can" at a little radio station under the guise of "The Soggy Bottom Boys." Unbeknownst to them, their song, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" becomes a huge hit.
On their journey, the boys encounter "sigh-reens" by a river who tempt them sorely, bringing huge laughs as Delmar is convinced that Pete has been turned into a toad as judgment for yielding; and a one-eyed violent con artist Bible salesman (John Goodman) in this movie's version of Cyclops. They also rescue a black guitar player who has sold his soul to the devil from a batch of Klansmen, whose ceremony is a cross between a bad marching band and the Oompa Loompas from "Willy Wonka." Charles Durning is also great as a beleaguered governor running for re-election.
Eventually, even the supposedly sophisticated and "scientifically minded" Ulysses is forced to call upon God for help.
The Cohens do a nice job of capturing the tone of Depression-era comedies and musicals, and one can't help but think of the Laurel and Hardy movie "Pardon Us" and various song and dance features of a bygone era. As in "Fargo" there is much funny and affectionate satirizing of accents and customs-- most of the PG-13 rating comes from what the Cohens figger are Southern swear words, mostly mild.
The cast is great. Clooney's dumb version of his usual smart guy act works great, but his partners really steal the show. Tim Blake Nelson has many hilarious Stan Laurel-type moments, and you really must see John Turturro sweetly yodelling along as a member of the Soggy Bottom Boys.
The Cohens' clever script and glowing cinematography have earned Oscar nominations, but Nelson really should have been considered, and it's a durn near unpardonable sin that T. Bone Burnett's great old-timey music score was not nominated (though the sound track IS selling well). And whether you could give a hoot about bluegrass music or not, I promise you'll be humming songs from "O Brother," for days afterward.