[Screen It]

(2000) (George Clooney, John Turturro) (PG-13)

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Comedy: Having escaped from a 1930s era chain gang, three convicts encounter various interesting people as they set out on a journey to retrieve a hidden treasure.
It's 1937 and Ulysses Everett McGill (GEORGE CLOONEY) is a silver-tongued, petty criminal who has convinced two other convicts, Delmar (TIM BLAKE NELSON) and Pete (JOHN TURTURRO), to escape from their Mississippi chain gang. After meeting a blind seer (LEE WEAVER) who tells them that they must travel a long and difficult journey before finding a fortune that won't be the one they're looking for, the three men set out for the treasure that McGill promised them and which reportedly will be at the bottom of a lake in four days.

As a solemn lawman, Sheriff Cooley (DANIEL VON BARGEN), pursues them, the three run into various interesting characters along the way. There's Tommy Johnson (CHRIS THOMAS KING), a young musician on his way to Jackson who claims to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the gift of music. Then there's George "Baby Face" Nelson (MICHAEL BADALUCCO), a machine gun toting, manic depressive bank robber; a group of Sirens (MIA TATE, MUSETTA VANDER & CHRISTY TAYLOR) who seduce the men, and Big Dan Teague (JOHN GOODMAN), an unscrupulous, one-eyed Bible salesman.

Meanwhile, incumbent Governor Pappy O'Daniel (CHARLES DURNING) is in a heated campaign versus challenger Homer Stokes (WAYNE DUVALL), whose campaign manager, Vernon T. Waldrip (RAY McKINNON), is set to marry McGill's ex-wife, Penny (HOLLY HUNTER). With time running out and while dealing with all of those people and the various complications that come their way, the men discover that their quest has indeed changed into something else.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Among the formats used for structuring movie plots, the "road movie" scenario is one of the more popular. An easily adaptable story structure that usually involves one or more characters who literally hit the road and then encounter various other characters and complications as they set off in pursuit of whatever their goal might be, the road movie format has fueled numerous films ranging from "Thelma and Louise" to all of those Bob Hope and Bing Crosby flicks.

While the origin of such stories is obviously highly debatable, one can reasonably argue that they all stem from Homer's "The Odyssey." Written by the Greek poet sometime circa 800 B.C., the epic work involved the hero Odysseus returning from the Trojan War to find various suitors living off his wealth and wooing his wife, Penelope. He then sets out on a decade-long journey filled with encounters with various characters and plenty of peril and eventually returns to reclaim his family.

Innovative filmmakers Joel & Ethan Coen - the brotherly filmmaking team responsible for films such as "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski" and "Raising Arizona" - have now decided to take this nearly 3,000 year old story and loosely use it as the basis for their latest effort, the road movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Of course, it's not very likely that many viewers (who miss the on-screen reference to Homer) will suddenly state, "Hey, this is an awful lot like 'The Odyssey,'" but there are some purposeful similarities along with the expected differences. Instead of a Grecian hero who encounters various mythological characters (including the shipwrecking Sirens), here we have an escaped convict (of the same name) in 1930s era Mississippi who encounters vintage character types from that period (as well as some still water-based sirens) while on his own journey to get back with his wife.

Like most of the Coen brothers' previous pictures, this one is filled with quirky and compelling characters as well as an imaginative visual look thanks to the efforts of their longtime collaborators cinematographer Roger Deakins ("Fargo," "Barton Fink"), production designer Dennis Gassner ("Barton Fink," "Bugsy") and costume designer Mary Zophres ("Fargo," "The Big Lebowski"). That, added with the basic underlying plot, keeps the film interesting throughout.

Unfortunately, all of that doesn't add up to a tremendous, cumulative cinematic experience. Despite its old-fashioned comedic feel and characters, some fun individual scenes and a great, toe-tapping bluegrass score, the film never seems to gel into a completely satisfying whole.

That's not to say that it's a bad film by any means, and since we're never quite sure how it will end - unlike most of today's movies - we're interested enough in it to stick with it through the slower spots. It's just that the film never reaches the level of the filmmakers' other efforts in amazing, shocking or amusing us. It certainly doesn't fulfill the potential of what could have happened with the material here. In short, one could view this as "Coen Lite."

Named after the title of a film that's never made in Preston Sturges' 1941 comedy, "Sullivan's Travels," the film follows the standard road movie structure and throws in the often-used element of an outside character pursuing the primary ones. Yet, and unlike "The Fugitive," that subplot never amounts to much with the character, played by Daniel Von Bargen ("Snow Falling From Cedars," "The General's Daughter"), as he doesn't appear that often and thus doesn't really drive the direction of the story.

Of course, the rest of the film's various encounters and individual scenes don't cumulatively amount to much either. Although most of them are interesting and occasionally amusing, they really only come off as individual vignettes, and thus give the film something of an episodic feel. Not helping matters, most of the characters never develop much, if any, beyond their initially displayed characteristics, thus creating a shortage of substantive filler between those scenes.

That said, the performers inhabiting those characters thankfully imbue them with enough fun and quirky characteristics to make them fun to watch. George Clooney ("The Perfect Storm," "Three Kings"), of course, gets the plum role and delivers an infectiously amusing performance as the not so smart as he seems, hair pomade-obsessed con man.

Tim Blake Nelson ("The Thin Red Line," "Donnie Brasco") and John Turturro ("Quiz Show," "Do the Right Thing") are amusing in their Depression-era dumb & dumber roles, while the supporting performances - from the likes of Coen regulars Holly Hunter ("Living Out Loud," "The Piano") and John Goodman ("Coyote Ugly," "Raising Arizona") and others such as Charles Durning ("To Be Or Not To Be," "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas") - are good if not particularly fleshed out to any great extent.

While parts of the film are good and much of it has that quirky aura and charm that makes the Coen brothers' films so different from most everything else put out by Hollywood or even the majority of independent filmmakers, as an overall whole it's only moderately entertaining and successful at what it's attempting to do. As such, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed December 11, 2000 / Posted December 29, 2000

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