"O Brother, Where Art Thou" is the latest proof that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Producer-writer brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, those smart-alecky paragons of postmodern irony, may have been the last filmmakers most of us would expect to see come up with a gentle parable about faith. Yet their latest comic diversion is a sly take on all those biblical admonitions about fools and children coming first in the kingdom of God. Even if the filmmakers probably don't believe the script's vaguely affirming message themselves, the triumph of the witless makes for gratifying comedy, as well as crudely on-target New Testament theology.Set in Mississippi in the 1930s, "O Brother" is a road movie about three improbably amiable escapees from a chain gang. Two of the three, the angry John Turturro and the impervious Tim Blake Nelson, are dumb as proverbial oxen; the third, George Clooney, this mild bunch's putative leader, is their opposite, being wholly overarticulate and unfazably overconfident. The screenplay is blatantly based on Homer's "Odyssey" (the title card that says so gets the first laugh in the movie), and this threesome duly runs into a cyclops, a seer, and a set of irresistible sirens, among other Greek-derived conceits. But as it's set in the Depression-era South, they also happen upon a lot of that old-time Christianity. "O Brother"'s big conversion scene comes when Turturro and Nelson stumble on a backwoods congregation's mass river baptism and impulsively rush forward to get their sins washed away, too. Clooney, a self-styled skeptic, is not amused by his fellow cons' grasping at salvation. "I guess hard times always flush the chumps," he gripes. The Coens' well-established sense of irony, if not their piety, demands that Clooney's dapper rationalist will undergo his own foxhole conversion--which he'll naturally rescind once his miracle is safely in the bag.
The film's villains aren't exempt from all this pervasive period religiosity. The aforementioned cyclops comes in the form of John Goodman as a one-eyed Bible salesman. Tiring of the two naifs trailing along with him, Clooney thinks he's found an intellectual soulmate in this crooked behemoth. He so admires Goodman's cynicism and his ability to complete a sentence that he literally can't see when he's about to get smacked upside the head. (It's one of the movie's best--and most brutal--gags that Clooney's faith in Goodman is unswerving even as he's just seen one of his cohorts thwacked unconscious and is about to receive the same.)Later on, the trio picks up a black guitarist at a rural crossroads, and anyone with a cursory knowledge of blues mythology will immediately guess from that overhead shot that the hitchhiker at this intersection just finished selling his soul to the devil. (The guitarist's name is Tommy Johnson, which most reviewers have identified as spoofing Robert Johnson. But there really was a Tommy Johnson singing and playing the blues in this time frame--you can buy his CDs on plenty of websites--and yes, he too was believed to have bartered his immortal soul for musical prowess.) The escapees and the new guy get into a debate: Clooney figures the devil is a guy in a red suit, while the musician insists he looks like any regular white man. Later, they both turn out to be right when they find themselves in trouble at a Klan rally presided over by a grand dragon dressed in flaming crimson. In a particularly perverse touch, the Klan leader sings the moving spiritual "O Death, Where Is Thy Sting" as a prelude to an intended lynching, and it's the great Ralph Stanley's voice that comes out of his mouth.
There's been some critical sniping that "O Brother" proves once and for all that the Coens are patronizing misanthropes. And it's true that the movie's mostly bumbling Southerners resemble Homer Simpson more than anything out of Homer. But to my mind, the Coens show a genuine affection for their film's principal threesome, with neither Clooney's overweening bravado nor the relative dimness of Nelson and Turturro canceling their essential likeability.It is Preston Sturges' 1940s masterpiece "Sullivan's Travels" that provides this film its unwieldy title. "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" was the name Sturges' idealistic director wanted to give his socially conscious picture. The Coens' "O Brother" is not the agitprop that Sturges' man had in mind. Instead, what you get here, and with other recent Coen movies like "Fargo" and "The Big Lebowski," is almost a hipster's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit": animated concoctions plopped into a real world, the actors' heavily stylized characterizations set against a more naturalistic, pastoral tableau. In some of the more outlandishly cartoonish moments, you could be forgiven for sympathizing slightly with the movie's detractors and wishing the brothers would adopt just a smidgeon more of Sturges'--for lack of a better word--humanism.But if the film is admittedly chock-full of caricatures, the whole enterprise seems less featherweight than it might due in part to the superb, sober soundtrack, put together by T. Bone Burnett, which consists mostly of period songs from the '20s and '30s (and in some cases, even the late 19th century) redone by contemporary country, bluegrass, gospel, and blues artists. The sense of sin, salvation, joy, and impending death present in these revived classics lends "O Brother" a background, at least, of gravitas.
And any deficit of gravity is hardly fatal for this sort of spirit-lifting lark. It's worth remembering that by the end of "Sullivan's Travels," Sturges' pretentious protagonist had come to eschew social commentary in favor of helping humanity by relieving suffering through laughter, a medicine that the Coens here provide in spades.
Nor does the Coens' core parable, about belief versus rationalism, suffer much from being so broadly and mirthfully drawn. In keeping with those New Testament admonitions about simpletons having it all over the wise, it may not be stretching the gospel too far to imagine that it could be, yes, the most cartoonish believers marching first into the kingdom of heaven.