O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Have you ever been a disappointed fan? It’s your fault if you have. And it’s my fault that O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) is a disappointing film. Next time around though I’ll know better, I’ll know what to expect from the Coen Brothers. Or, more to the point, now I know what I like from them and I’ll know to have no expectations from their comedies. It’s as simple as that. Of their eight films, four have been comedies and the other four were. something else. The Coens have always had a reputation for playing games with genre, with the possible exceptions of Barton Fink (1991) and Fargo (1995), which don’t really fit (or break out of) a generic mould. For example: Miller’s Crossing (1990) (gangster), Blood Simple (1983) (film noir), The Big Lebowski (1998) (hardboiled detective mystery), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) (screwball comedy), Raising Arizona (1987) (who knows, who cares). However, I would distinguish their films according to tone or sensibility. A certain sensibility defines Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and Fargo, which could all be called black comedy/dramas with an introspective twist. Which is not a very neat classification. Of course, these films have extremely funny moments and dialogue, but they are not guided by the comedic structuring devices that Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, and now, O Brother, are. These latter comedies are not particularly good, or even very funny for that matter. The humour always seems forced, from characters constructed on a collection of mannerisms, to an obvious deployment of irony and parody at every level of the film. And the films never seem to be about anything. Which is a great critical throwaway, and it would be a surprise if I justified that later in this piece.

O Brother is the story of three convicts who escape from a chain gang in search of a buried treasure, and their subsequent journey across the southern states of America. Along the way they meet some of the Coens’ regular players, and other assorted over-acting misfits. They also encounter a series of disconnected vignettes, bound by a loose association to the narrative figures of the film’s stated source, Homer’s The Odyssey. Confessing to never reading the book is not so inexcusable since apparently the Coens claim they’ve never read it either. The real source of inspiration and the title of the film comes explicitly from a Preston Sturges’ film, Sullivan’s Travels (1941). The titular character of that film, a big-time Hollywood director of comedies and musicals, decides that his next project will be a social-conscience film that would be a portrait of the real America during the depression, giving a sense of what life is really like outside the comfort and safety of the cinema. The film he intends to make is to be called O Brother, Where Art Thou? The choice of this title by the Coen Brothers for their latest is certainly amusing enough for all 1st year post-modernists. To get a sense of the life he doesn’t know, Sullivan sets out with ten cents in his pocket on a journey to discover the real America. At the end of the film, after experiencing a little more than he wanted to, he decides that there is nothing wrong with comedy: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh.”

The main character of O Brother, Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), leads his fellow escapees (since they’re all chained together), Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), on a journey to discover a treasure he claims to have buried before his capture. Everett’s real motivations lie elsewhere, to do with Holly Hunter, his wife, claiming she’s a widow, and are not fulfilled towards the end of the film. Unfortunately, and despite Clooney’s best efforts, there is nothing in the way of depth to his character. The point of Sullivan’s journey was that he would discover something about himself and experience something of America beyond his presumptions. Which is not something that happens to the three characters of this film. And worse still, there is nothing for the audience to discover about these characters. John Turturro gives a performance of such little interest, it would be pointless to insult it. His character seems to be ready to break into a psychotic fit at any moment, and with no reason. Delmar is a moron that slurs his speech, which suggests he really belongs in an Australian film (1). Excessively stupid characters are not funny, they’re just boring. And suggestive of a lack of imagination. Clooney is given a little more to work with in Everett, but beyond a fondness for Dapper Dan pomade and hairnets, there is not a lot to this character except Clooney’s bug-eyed facial expression. There is no real sense of camaraderie between any of these characters, or between Everett and his not so bereaved widow. So, we have three characters with no inner life, traipsing across America, running into various other characters and experiences that are either culturally specific to the 1930s or allusions to The Odyssey.

The three make the acquaintance of a black guitar player, and soon find themselves cutting a record in a radio station, performing under the name of The Soggy Bottom Boys. They also meet Babyface Nelson, the notorious bank robber, and accompany him during a job. There is also the issue of a political race, and the highly choreographed Ku Klux Klan. It is typical of the overly sentimental and feel-good nature of this film, that all these plot strands will return in an unnecessary attempt at resolution that unconvincingly articulates a circular narrative trajectory. The three main characters (because the guitarist just seems to disappear when he’s not relevant to the story) also encounter three Sirens by the river. After a fade to black, our heroes awake to find they are only two, as Pete seems to have been turned into a frog. Concerned though they are, particularly Delmar who really is stupid enough to believe that the frog is Pete, they continue and soon encounter an overbearing bible salesman (John Goodman) with only one eye. Interpret him as the Cyclops. An exceptionally nasty one. Likewise, this scene suggests a moral but it really goes nowhere, and I can barely remember what follows it. Which is really the point I’m making. There is no feeling or memory of the journey travelled in this film. It is a journey reminiscent of Sullivan’s, yet it studiously avoids social commentary and political opinion on the topics it raises, and is unable to present a coherent theme or idea to match its milieu.

At first glance this film treads the same ground as Mel Brooks did with films such as the History of the World Part 1 (1981), Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974). The Coens however don’t display the same comedic bravado as Brooks, who throws his whole shoulder behind his comic punch lines, which tends to leave him over-extended when he finds himself with weak material (2). The scenes in O Brother are amusing enough, some more so than others, but they bare no relation to each other or to the film as a whole. They’re just there for their own sake, which seems hardly reason enough. The plots of Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing are so tightly woven, where every scene adds to character and propels the story, that they’re a joy to watch more than once. Miller’s Crossing literally begins with a discussion of “friendship, character and ethics” and proceeds with a gangster tale that consistently and ambiguously revolves around these topics from start to finish. With these films, including Fargo and Barton Fink, their characters arrive at the end of the narrative, with knowledge (sometimes limited) of the resolution, but without a realisation of the full personal and emotional meaning.

However, when the Coens do comedy, they don’t raise issues, they don’t turn narrative form inside out to interrogate morality, or ethics. They make no statement about the generic form they’ve appropriated. They just take it, and string a series of gags on it. And this is a fun and inoffensive film. I won’t deny that. I also won’t be accused of expecting the Coens to simply make another Miller’s Crossing or Blood Simple. But when I can see what they’re capable of, and then I see them wasting their talents on something as frivolous and inconsequential as O Brother I can’t help but be disappointed. Not disappointed that the film is not what I expected, for it was very much as I expected. Apart from the glimmer of hope that Fargo offered me, it is becoming obvious that the Coens want to be fun filmmakers, and not serious filmmakers. Which is fine for them, and disappointing for me. And who cares about that?

Endnotes

  1. I could explain this, but I’m following a critical tradition of making dismissive remarks without a justification.
  2. I’ve always hated lines like this, and writing it myself merely confirms the pretentiousness of it.

About The Author

Michael Cohen is presently completing his Master of Arts in Cinema Studies at Latrobe University, Melbourne, and is a freelance writer on cinema.