Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Release Date: December 22, 2000
Running Time: 106 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Editor's Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Ok, I know this isn’t too recent of a title, but there’s a reason you still see this movie making the rounds on the movie channels, which is what put it back on my radar. It’s an endearing and witty retelling of the classic hero’s journey, with a funny and smartly-cast group of actors supporting it all. Oh, you didn’t know? Oh Brother is actually based off of Homer’s Odyssey, the classic epic poem about the ancient Greek king Odysseus who, torn from his homeland and loving family by a vengeful god, must travel across the world through terrible hardships to reclaim his kingdom. Of course, this is a very general description of a truly sprawling and intricate tale, but this isn’t BellaOnline’s Classic Literature web site.
This retelling sets itself in depression-era Mississippi and bases itself around the motivations of one Ulysses Everett McGill (Ulysses is the Roman form of Odysseus), and his companions Delmar O’Donnell and Pete Hogwallop. Besides having amazing first and last names respectively, Delmar and Pete are coerced to help Ulysses, who goes by Everett, by Everett’s promise of buried treasure lying in wait at his childhood home. The catch is that the state of Mississippi is going to flood the valley his home sits in, so time is of the essence. They hatch a plan to bust out of jail and –
Oh. I forgot to mention they’re part of a prison chain gang, didn’t I? Well, yes. They’re all convicts, but as the story progresses, they all shed the stigma of being imprisoned and become their own characters. Suffice to say they do free themselves, and along the way they evade authorities and meet a variety of colorful characters. In fact, if you didn’t know beforehand that the movie was based on The Odyssey, it would just be a cute road movie with a quirky setting. As it is, with the movie being almost 15 years old, that might be just the case. Case in point: how often do you actually catch a movie from the beginning on HBO without actively trying to do so?
The movie follows very closely to the some problems of the time – unemployment, racism, bank robbery, cronyism politics – while at the same time mirroring the tribulations Odysseus and his crew faced on the way home. Even the blind prophet Tiresias has his place in the movie. This inclusion works well as a way to remind the audience that something otherworldly, almost magical, is going on between all the twangy banjos and funny accents.
Speaking of funny accents, the casting in this movie is amazing. George Clooney is a no-brainer for Everett, but his slickness also blends well with his southern demeanor. Tim Blake Nelson does a great job portraying the loveable dummy Delmar, and John Turturro belies his normal wittiness to give Pete a true hot-headed, belligerent personality. But for my money, Charles Durning steals the show as Pappy O’Daniel, the cranky incumbent governor of Mississippi. Durning gives him a personality that is a volatile cross between Jackie Gleason from Smokey and the Bandit and George Carlin. He easily has some of the best one-liners in the movie, and serves as a kind of comic relief when the main funny guys are too busy doing somber stuff like moving the plot along.
All in all, O Brother provides an experience that is uniquely entertaining any time you see it. Things you never noticed in a first or second viewing end up catching your attention, and before you know it, you’ve watched the damn thing thirty times. Case in point - the film itself looks like something out of an old movie, and for good reason – it was the first movie in the US to actually have its entire film digitally graded, resulting in the old-timey look. While it’s a little on the older side, O Brother, Where Art Thou continues to be one funny and fascinating film. Check it out, you won't be disappointed.
* I watched this movie on a premium movie channel using a cable service I pay for *