O Brother, Where Art Thou is a very typical Cohen Brothers film in that it is in every respect smarter and wittier than standard Hollywood fare but has a plot that barely hangs together and makes no real attempt to build a narrative. The film is loosely based on The Odyssey but that fit is created primarily with the introduction of side characters who are clear homages to Homer's epic. O Brother is a good film, it has a similar amount of laugh out loud moments to The Big Lebowski and it lets the viewer know they are watching something better than another run of the mill Hollywood comedy.
The plot is not the strongest part of the film and is only really revealed in the last couple of scenes. O Brother is a journey of three Deep South convicts escaping from a chain gang and making their way towards treasure. There is not any real payoff for the journey and in traditional Cohen Brothers fashion the earlier parts of the story are subsumed once the action begins. In this case it all really gets going when the three escapees team up with a Delta Blues guitar player who has sold his soul to the devil and together they conjure what is a really high quality song. The song plays huge even if the characters do not realise it and the sequence of events from then on fly by.
It would be a stretch to say O Brother is a character film. The depth of the main characters is never really tested. George Clooney's smarter-than-the-rest lead is great. Clooney is perfectly cast as the leader of the pack who gets his way with his understanding of semantics while others struggle with even basic functions. The pitch is what makes Clooney's character work - he is smarter than the rest but he's still caught out on numerous occasions. His sidekicks are not the most extensive characters committed to screen but perhaps a little reminiscent of other well-known comedy trios, the two lesser players exist for the lead to bring levity.
What kicks O Brother up from watchable to good though is the setting. Dust Bowl era Mississippi is something very different and the side characters are the ones that make this setting work so well. The political race between two men offering aspects of the worst of southern culture is cutting. The recklessness of the law enforcers sent to catch the fugitive heroes is a touch of brilliance and the use of fire as a recurring visual theme has an excellent payoff. The Cyclops makes a very of-the-time intervention as a not too subtle con artist.
It is often the musical accompaniment that can make a film seem good or great and the music of O Brother is truly excellent. Drawing on the separate traditions of blues, chaingang chorus, celtic heritage fiddles, and early country music the score is a real treat. The lead song, Man Of Constant Sorrow is a quality tune by itself and works so well with the facial emotiveness Clooney brings. The Soggy Bottom Boys are a mighty fine musical outfit.
Visually O Brother works extremely well. The dust bowl colours bring out the bleakness of the depression era and make the suspension of disbelief about the limited plot very easy. Turning what is apparently quite a lush part of the world into a fairly arid and murky environment provides the temperate and the incentives that make all of the characters so understandable.
The DVD Extras are disappointing. It has to be said that this was a complete swing and a miss. One technical insert about the colouring is interesting but the talking heads sections are weak. The insight into the culture of The Odyssey and the culture of the Deep South are entirely absent. It seems to be entirely assumed that the viewer is completely familiar with both and while some of us might be, not all of us will have the intuitive understanding of the twin settings that makes the subtlety work. Other films, some of which were filmed decades earlier, have provided this and it has really added to the overall work. The extracts of music are nice enough though this viewer did disagree out loud with one assessment made by the musical coordinator.
O Brother is a good film, light hearted and well worth watching. It is not a masterpiece but it is good comedy and a nice way to while away time in while being entertained in a slightly smarter style than most films.