Even if film adaptations of literary classics make you edgy, there’s nothing to fear in O Brother, Where Art Thou, a rousing joyride that’s sure to entertain even those who have never read The Odyssey, on which it’s loosely based. For those who may have “forgotten” it, The Odyssey tells of King Odysseus (also called Ulysses), who travels for ten years after the Trojan War, attempting to return to his wife and homeland, Ithaca. Along the way, he encounters various obstacles, including a giant one-eyed Cyclops and beautiful sirens. His quick wits – and the intervention of the gods – are his only defenses.
In this Coen Brothers retelling, set during the Great Depression, the Cyclops is a wicked Bible salesman (John Goodman), the sirens tempt the travelers with corn whiskey as well as a lullaby, and Ithaca is in rural Mississippi. Ulysses (George Clooney) isn’t a king, but a smooth-talking petty criminal who’s obsessed with his hair and who is inconveniently shackled on a chain gaing to two dimwits, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), complicating his escape plans. Promising to share a long-buried treasure, Ulysses convinces his fellow convicts to make a break for it with him, thus beginning an unpredictable and engaging journey.
Their incredible expedition is filled with unexpected pit stops, miraculous coincidences and divine intervention. The unanticipated developments are as surprising to us as they are to our protagonists, but unlike them, we can laugh at the increasingly bizarre predicaments in which they find themselves. Among many other things, they befriend a doomed blues guitar player, disguise themselves as a hillbilly singing act, get baptized and accompany a bank robber on his final heist, all while hotly pursued by a vengeful sheriff and a team of bloodhounds who have a distinct trail to follow, thanks to Ulysses’ fondness for a particular hair pomade.
With its moss-covered trees, vast tobacco fields and lush swamps, the Deep South is a fitting substitute for ancient Greece. Beautifully shot in sepia tones, the film seems at times like a vintage photo brought to life. With a slew of Coen Brothers alumni, every performance is truly terrific, especially Clooney’s affable Ulysses and Nelson’s amiable and endearing Delmar. A meandering film with both a heart and a funny bone, O Brother, Where Art Thou ranks among the best of the Coen Brothers’ films – and of the entire holiday season as well.