O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one whale of an entertaining film. It has an infectious musical score by T. Bone Burnett, terrific comic performances, and snappy dialogue. The story is a clever transposition of Homer’s Odyssey to the American south during the Great Depression.
There is just one catch. Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote the script, actually began the project planning to make a film inspired by The Wizard Of Oz. Joel Coen said, “…at a certain point, we looked at each other and said, “You know, they’re trying to get home-let’s just say this is The Odyssey.” Not that they had read The Odyssey. They wrote the O Brother script relying on cultural references and film adaptations, but still managed to produce a winner.
In the early scenes, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) escape from a chain gang. The breakout has been instigated by the fast-talking Everett, who claims he has only a limited time to retrieve money he buried after a robbery. Everett claims the loot will be submerged by a man-made lake.) Pete and Delmar tag along on the condition that Everett will give them a share.
Although constantly on the run from police, the three have adventures and meet new people. They meet Tommy (Chris Thomas King), a young black man who has sold his soul for the ability to play guitar. The four record a song as the Soggy Bottom Boys. Malevolent Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) robs them. George “Baby Face” Nelson (Michael Badalucco) gives them a lift but also shocks them with his behavior. They run afoul of three Sirens, although Pete and Delmar are cleansed of sin when they meet a group of Baptists.
Eventually, they arrive in Everett’s hometown and learn his true purpose in breaking out of jail. His ex-wife Penny (Holly Hunter) plans to remarry, and Everett wants to change her mind. Now he must convince Pete and Delmar to help, and they are pretty upset after learning there is no buried treasure. Pete is especially angry, since he only had a couple of weeks left on his sentence when he broke out of jail.
The Coen’s original influence, The Wizard Of Oz, shows up in a scene where the three rescue Tommy from the clutches of the Ku Klux Klan.
Whatever the Coen’s knowledge of the source material, the references to The Odyssey are accurate and fun. For example, Ulysses (Everett’s first name) is the Roman version of Odysseus, hero of The Odyssey. The literal meaning of Odysseus is “man of pain and sorrow”; this makes The Soggy Bottom Boys’ recording, “Man Of Constant Sorrow”, particularly apt.
One aspect of this film- its title- has nothing to do with either The Wizard Of Oz or The Odyssey. That refers to Preston Sturges’ 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels. The title character, John L. Sullivan, has made his success directing comedies but yearns to make an “important” drama. The title of his dream project? O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Theme: Inspired By Greek Literature
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