Movie Review #31 / 250 : ‘O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?’

No spoilers.  I’m taking out a new policy on these here reviews from now on – if you don’t wanna be spoiled, HAVE NO FEAR!  Keep reading.  Unless the climax is absolutely detrimental to my recap, I’m not touching them from now on.

Yeah, ok.  The Coen Brothers.  I last came across this pair in January via The Big Lebowski, and suffice to say, I enjoyed myself.  I now have a taste for White Russian, and have started actually using my dressing gown.  The directive Coens seem to be known for quirky, laid-back characters that traipse their way through labyrinths of shaggy dog stories without care or restraint (and I’ll be watching another one of their films, Burn After Reading, later in the year – who knows when?).  And there’s something oddly comforting about that.  Too many of us whittle and worry away about finding a matching pair of socks, while characters like Lebowski’s Dude seem only mildly aggravated that a bounty’s sitting on their heads.  It kinda puts things in perspective.

O Brother is definitely no exception.  It’s a tale of three convicts in depression-era Mississippi who decide to break away from their chain gang in order to go hunting for a revered ‘treasure’ out in the back of beyond.  Along the way, the trio meet a veritable bevy of weird and wonderful kooks, each making their livings and ways in the world while they themselves find distraction, despair, and on at least one occasion, bodily harm.  A striking cast led by George Clooney (I seriously had my doubts on this feller) does well to meander through what’s a real anthology of mishaps and moral stories.

The screenplay is apparently loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, an ancient Greek epic – and like your average epic poem (guys, I had to scurry through the likes of The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost for my undergrad studies), O Brother is no less one story, but several.  Characters like guitarist Tommy (who sold his soul to the Devil), bible salesman Big Dan (Coen favourite John Goodman) and even bank robber George ‘Baby Face’ Nelson drift in and out of the motley crew’s adventure, reappearing to finish their tales off as Clooney et al finish theirs.  It’s pretty well put together.  It’s essentially a modern epic; never straying from the story nor the intentions of the main trio, but incorporating enough madcap elements along the way to bth sidetrack them and help keep things interesting.  A similar technique was used in The Blues Brothers – how short would that film have been had they reformed the band and played the concert without all the diversions?  About twenty minutes, that’s how long.

It’s hard not to like the characters- most of them doe-eyed and upfront, and those that aren’t are the antagonists – who don’t really get revealed as being the ‘baddies’ until the very last minute.  Oh, save for the ever-present but shadowy Sherriff, who trails the escapees right to the finish.  This is also a really musical film – very bluesy, very folky – there’s barely a silent moment when people aren’t speaking. This, and the intentional steel-and-sepia colours that paint the film in its entirety, help root the film in the time and locale in which it’s (I guess) pastiching.  It’s all very nice to look at, and jeez that Clooney can sing.  Unless, of course, he was dubbed.  Correct me if that’s the case!

Onto the nitty gritty, then.  This is, again, a really laid-back picture.  The characters aren’t monstrously deep, the stakes are high – but the egos aren’t, and for the most part, it’s pretty funny.  There’s some great lines scattered throughout, but most of the humour comes from its charm and the sheer unflappable will of the main characters.  The main gripe for me comes from the winding down of the film – the climax whimpers out a little bit (AND I’M NOT SPOILING IT!) in comparison with the great, booming, madcap adventures that make up the majority of the preceding flick.  It’s a complete story, with all threads tied off – but I’m just left a little underwhelmed.  Unsure why, but maybe that’s for the best.  This is a film I really don’t want to be too negative about, as it’s so happy.

PROS: Epic story.   Great visually.  Great cast.  Superb soundtrack.  Classic Coen characterisation.

CONS: The film loses momentum in the last twenty minutes, hitting its climax just before.  The sheer amount of characters and switching focus may annoy some.

SCORE : 7 out of 10.
I’m giving a seven rather than an eight solely for its stumbling momentum towards the end – and it’s not the type of film I’d normally go for whatsoever, but I enjoyed myself.  I’m finding out more and more that I ought to be less cautious in my filmwatching.  Still think I prefer Lebowski, though.  Do you think I mentioned Lebowski enough?  Probably.

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