O Brother, Where Art Thou? (PG-13)
God love the Coen brothers.
It'd be great to be a little fly on the wall, listening as they plot, plan and write their bizarre, wicked little films. What kind of mind imagines Homer's Odyssey set in Depression-era rural Mississippi, then throws in all manner of modern American mythology just for the fun of it and turns the whole thing into a full-blown comedy?
The amazing thing is that this funny, slight idea is so lovingly and solidly conceived and executed. Not only do the Coens pull off the silly story, making it intriguing at every turn, but they create a fully imagined physical world on camera.
George Clooney is pitch perfect as Ulysses Everett McGill, a smart-talking, slick-looking con man who breaks away from a penal farm chain gang and drags along the two guys who happen to be hooked up to him on either side -- dour Pete (John Turturro) and hapless Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson).
Shortly after the three escape and set off in search of McGill's treasure trove of buried loot, they come across a blind old man, a prophet who tells them: "You will find a fortune but not the fortune you seek." From there, it's anybody's guess what fate will befall the three travelers.
They pick up Tommy (Chris Thomas King), a blues guitar player they find standing alone at midnight on a dark Mississippi crossroads. Tommy tells the three that he has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for becoming a great guitar player, a Coen nod to the legend of Mississippi blues great, Robert Johnson.
They are seduced by a trio of sirens, buxom women washing their laundry along the riverbank, and we are left to figure out whether the sirens actually turn Pete into a horned toad or not.
Delmar and McGill are sold a bill of goods by a one-eyed Bible salesman, a gleefully evil John Goodman as the Cyclops. And in a comic crisis worthy of the best of the Three Stooges, they infiltrate a Ku Klux Klan rally in a bold attempt to rescue Tommy. As you can imagine, the result is perversely hilarious.
Of all the Coen brothers' comedies, O Brother is the lightest with far less of the brutal humor and violent consequences their movies usually contain. And setting off that essential sweetness is the film's gorgeous soundtrack, compiled, orchestrated and engineered by T Bone Burnett with assistance from Gillian Welch. You cannot walk away from this film without humming one of the familiar tunes -- "You Are My Sunshine," "I'll Fly Away," or "Keep on the Sunny Side" -- all performed by Nashville's best traditional musicians.
Much as I like everything about this film, I liked Tim Blake Nelson's performance best. The guy is a natural -- that accent has got to be real -- and his depiction of a good-natured simpleton makes you wish the world had a few more of those to go around.