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O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?

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Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter
Director: Joel Coen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Touchstone
Features: See Review
Length: 103 Minutes
Release Date: June 12, 2001

“It’s a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.”

Film ****

Who would’ve expected a classic poem such as Homer’s The Odyssey to be translated to cinematic form through the quirky vision of the Coen brothers, known for their eccentrically violent and humorous films such as Fargo and Blood Simple? The result was one of their most fabulous films to date, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which translates the poem to the setting to depression-era Mississippi. I’ve never actually read The Odyssey, which for me makes this movie a triumph even if it isn’t a translation of a classic piece of literature. The Coen brothers claimed never to have read it either, but numerous characterizations I’m sure bare a resemblance to those in Homer’s tale.

The film opens with a strong, effective shot of a chain gang working on a railroad, and engaged in a sing-a-long to help them along. Then cut to three bumbling prisoners who very quietly sneak an escape attempt, which they succeed at amazingly. The prisoners are Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), a trio that seems destined to rival The Three Stooges. McGill has a plan, which is to journey back to his home town to get back his wife, who’s acquired seven daughters and a new beau, and has promised to cut Pete and Delmar in on a treasure of fortune that he claims to have buried before joining the prison gang.

Along the way, the three run into some truly weird settings and eccentric people, most of all that of notorious gangster George “Babyface” Nelson (Michael Badalucco), who very much despises being referred to by his famous nickname. They also come across a cousin of Pete’s who even dares to turn the boys in, a one-eyed bible book salesman (John Goodman), a blind recording manager who even gives the three a song deal after hearing that they have the needed ability, a trio of singing seductive sirens, a larger than life church congregation in the woods, the Ku Klux Klan, and a devilish sheriff who’s on their trail.

Perhaps the most remarkable trait of O Brother, Where Art Thou is the fact that the movie never loses an inch of its razor sharp wit. About every single scene in the film generates either a laugh, smile, smirk, or a sense of awe at the beautiful look to the film, which was shot in a fresh format with mostly faded out colors to make its setting more believable, which it truly is. The movie also indulges in the harmonies of country and blue grass music. When McGill and the guys dub themselves “The Soggy Bottom Boys” to perform the song “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow”, it’s quite an astoundingly joyous, entertaining moment.

At the heart of the film is comedic brilliance founded in George Clooney’s performance, for which he won a much deserving Golden Globe award. Clooney, one of my Top five favorite all time actors believe it or not, has long had a charismatic presence, and a known reputation as a goofball. He has a Cary Grant quality in him like no other actor in today’s movies, and O Brother, Where Art Thou is vital proof, in which he dons a remarkable fast-speaking dialect and resembling that of a young Clark Gable with his mustache and frequent use of Dapper Dan hair gel. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson are in equally top-comedic form. Turturro, a veteran of numerous movies by the Coens, dons Pete with a thick dirty southern accent with pure perfection, and Nelson, a rising star, offers a gentle sweetness and clumsiness to Delmar.

O Brother, Where Art Thou is one of last year’s ten best films. It represents uproarious comedy and grand filmmaking all at once, and a marvel of a performance from its leading actor. It shouldn’t be missed.

Video ****

A very stunning and grand looking transfer from Touchstone, who hasn’t offered a weak transfer in quite sometime. The unique use of faded and saturated colors turns up surprisingly well in this presentation. So much to the point, in fact, that I can probably label this as one of the best looking discs of an intentionally flat looking movie of recent memory. The picture is anamorphically enhanced, picture-perfect sharp and clear for the entire viewing. Sure to go on my list as one of the best looking discs of this year!

Audio ****

This area was quite a surprise as well, as Touchstone delivers their utmost best in this 5.1 Digital presentation. This also includes a DTS track, so it looks as if Disney in general is thankfully crossing over to appeal of the higher level of sound, which is pleasant to note. Comedies are usually unpredictable in terms of how they will sound on DVD, and this movie seems to have sounds in every distinct corner. Everything from music numbers, numerous gunshots, to opposite direction noises are picked up in the best form possible. Another plus for this department.

Features ***1/2

Touchstone shows no sign of slowing down in the extras field, as O Brother, Where Art Thou is given some neat added bonuses. First off is a production featurette, which comes off as most intriguing compared to the usual 3-5 minute press ads, an additional documentary titled “Painting with Pixels”, which shows what went into the creation of the film’s format, a script-to-storyboard presentation, a music video for the song “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow”, and a trailer for the movie.

Summary:

O Brother, Where Art Thou is another hysterical work of originality from the Coen brothers, as it is a rarely sweet natured, non-violent tale from the creators of the brilliant but completely opposite Fargo. A definite must-see!