I embark on a small scale odyssey through the Coen Bros. O Brother, Where Art Thou? for Turner Classic Movies online.
In the opening credits of Joel and Ethan Coen’s, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their 2000 depression-era prison break movie-turned-screwball odyssey through the deep south, is the attribution: “Based upon The Odyssey by Homer.” It’s a cheeky proclamation and it doesn’t take a classical scholar to note that, if it’s indeed true, they’ve taken liberties with the material. George Clooney comes on like a goofball Clark Gable as the fast-talking but slow-witted convict Everett, a greasy con-man who escapes from a chain gang, dragging along a couple of dim bulbs (a tetchy John Turturro and a sweetly stupid Tim Blake Nelson, both of whom spend much of the film with mouths agape and eyes glazed over). And drag them he does, almost literally, as they are chained together in those opening scenes. Once they throw off those chains, he appoints himself leader of their quest to uncover a buried treasure in a valley scheduled to be flooded. Along the way they have their fates foretold by a blind seer, become enchanted by the seductive song of three women washing in the river (the Sirens), are attacked by a giant of a one-eyed salesman (John Goodman, standing in for the Cyclops) and race to Everett’s home town to stop his abandoned wife, Penny (Holly Hunter as a tart Penelope), from marrying another man. Did I mention that Everett’s given name is Ulysses?
It has a remarkable (if playfully skewed) fidelity to the epic poem of mythical struggle, even if the filmmaking brother act never actually read Homer’s work (as they take pains to point out). “But we read the comic book version of The Odyssey,” confessed Ethan, as well as saw Hollywood spectacles and Ray Harryhausen fantasies based on, inspired by or selectively cribbed from it. Yet Homer’s epic poem is merely one of many inspirations for a film that Joel described as “the Lawrence of Arabia of hayseed comedies.”
Read the complete piece at TCM here. Plays on Turner Classic Movies on Thursday, October 15.