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  O Brother, Where Art Thou? Making Good Their Escape
Year: 2000
Director: Joel Coen
Stars: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning, Del Pentecost, Michael Badalucco, J.R. Horne, Brian Reddy, Wayne Duvall, Ed Gale, Ray McKinnon, Daniel von Bargen, Royce D. Applegate
Genre: Comedy, Adventure, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 2 votes)
Review: A chain gang is breaking rocks in the hot sun of 1937 Mississippi, but they are missing three convicts for a trio of escapees have sneaked away into the surrounding fields, still chained to one another, and now have to work out a way of getting the fortune in cash they stole, the crime they were arrested and imprisoned for. They manage to get to the forests whereupon the alarm is raised and head off as quickly as their circumstances will allow, picking up a chicken to eat along the journey, but that path they take will be fraught with danger as they meet a wide variety of people...

In fact, you could call it an odyssey, and with good reason for Joel Coen and Ethan Coen claimed right there in the opening credits to have based this collection of tall tales on Homer's most famous poem. Some were sceptical about this, having been smarted by the filmmakers' announcement that Fargo had been based on a true story when it wasn't really, but to be fair there were more allusions to the classic writer than there was stuff made up exclusively for the plot, and most people would be able to spot Polyphemus the Cyclops and the Sirens, for example, references to the original text of thousands of years ago (which the Coens asserted they had never actually read).

So the cognoscenti would be coaxed into appreciating O Brother, Where Art Thou?, not least because the title was taken from Preston Sturges' classic comedy drama Sullivan's Travels where it had been the name of the fictional director's misguided magnum opus. But if you wanted slapstick and broadly sketched characters in a crowdpleasing fashion, they were only too pleased to give you that too, with the result that the whole tone verged on the facetious, apart from one element, and that was the music. This was in its revisionist stylings a musical, and the T. Bone Burnett-supervised soundtrack album went on to be a runaway success, more so than the movie it hailed from though much of the pleasure can still derive from watching those tunes in this context.

A Man of Constant Sorrow was the most identified tune here, sung by George Clooney's character Ulysses Everett McGill, though the star was miming, and to illustrate how the music was perfectly sincere it's that which offers redemption to him and his two cohorts, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), when they record it to get a bit of spending money - with Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who's recently sold his soul, on guitar - not realising the disc becomes a statewide hit and makes them famous. If anyone knew who they were, that is, the engineer who captured their harmonies being blind. In the meantime, the escapees must avoid a sinister bunch of lawmen who are hot on their heels, and if that wasn't bad enough negotiate the various personalities who insist on crossing their path.

With Roger Deakins' gloriously sepia-toned photography you could hang just about any frame of this on a wall, and this dedication to the surface could also speak of a shallowness in the screenplay, but excellent playing by a cast including John Goodman in Cyclopean mode, Holly Hunter as the awkward wife Ulysses wants to win back to in echoes of tradition, and Charles Durning as the bad tempered governor who might be able to save the day, but then again may not (check out his little dance!) ensured this was nothing if not colourful. There was a curious religious angle as well, with the protagonist resolutely scientific for a long time in spite of the almost fantastical events and coincidences that litter his experience since fleeing captivity until he finally gives in for a plea to higher forces, who may be the Christian God or may be something more ancient judging by the classical nods, and receives an Old Testament deus ex machina for his contrition. It takes a particular sense of humour to laugh at this mix of high and lowbrow, but the exuberance was something to see.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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