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O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Only the Coen Brothers would have the balls to make a movie with a title from Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, base it on Homer's The Odyssey, and set it in the 1930's depression-era South. It's the kind of gutsy multi-homage stab they tried before with 1994's The Hudsucker Proxy, which turned into their biggest flop at the time. But, still buoyed by the mainstream and critical success of Fargo (1996), perhaps the Coens knew they could get away with it (and getting A-lister George Clooney on the marquee didn't hurt). O Brother, Where Art Thou? is all the more impressive, not because they pull it off — which they do — but because, for autuers who are known for their almost cold and subjective filmmaking, they manage to deliver a heartwarming story along with their trademark high-energy comedy. Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) and chain-gang associates Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O'Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson) break out of prison to recover Ulysses' stolen treasure (worth $1.2 million), but they have just four days to do it, at which time the town where Ulysses buried the cash will be flooded. On their journey the trio dodge pursuing cops — headed by an enigmatic, sunglasses-wearing lawman (Daniel von Bargen) — but keep having odd side-trips. They record a song as "The Soggy Bottom Boys" with the accompaniment of Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), a guitar player who says he sold his soul to the devil (a turn on legendary bluesman Robert Johnson); cross paths with George Nelson (Michael Badaluuco), a manic-depressive bank robber who can't stand being called "Babyface"; encounter a group of fetching women who seem to turn Pete into a frog; and meet malicious, Cycloptic bible salesman "Big" Dan Teauge (John Goodman). They also have tangential involvement in the upcoming election between challenger Homer Stokes and incumbent Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning), who hosts an old-time music show on the local radio station. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a musical of sorts, with a bluegrass score and many characters breaking into songs. And even it if is based on The Odyssey, it's very much a Coen Brothers film through and through, a tale more about redemption than the Homeric journey. It's also their most humane, endearing work yet, albeit with plenty of slapstick moments and Clooney's clipped delivery of the brilliant Coen dialogue ("Well, of course there are all manners of lesser imps and demons, Pete, but the great Satan himself is red, scaly, has a bifurcated tail and he carries a hayfork.") Buena Vista's DVD offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with audio in both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1. Production featurette, music video for "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow," Technicolor promotional reel explaining the look of the film, theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—DSH



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