On Dec. 22, 2000, the Coen brothers’ comic epic O Brother, Where Art Thou? hit theaters, where it would go on to gross $71 million globally. The film was nominated for two Oscars at the 73rd Academy Awards, for cinematography and adapted screenplay. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Trust the Coen brothers to mine comedic inspiration from Homer, but that they do in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a wildly ambitious but ultimately unsatisfying goof on The Odyssey.
Gorgeous to look at and filled with those Coen-esque absurdist touches, the picture is considerably more substantial than the siblings’ last outing — the amusing but slight The Big Lebowski — but despite a number of clever set pieces, it fails to capture the cohesive, loopy bliss of a Fargo.
While it will no doubt play well to the Coen’s faithful following, particularly in Europe, it will unlikely broaden the fan base.
Taking its name and initial jump-off point from the life-affirming film-within-a-film in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, the Coens’ bluegrass-fueled epic journey is set in 1930s Mississippi, where dapper, articulate Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), moody Pete (John Turturro) and sweet but simple Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) have just cut themselves loose from a prison chain gang.
Heeding the words of a blind railroad prophet (Lee Weaver), they embark on a quest for buried treasure, remaining barely one step ahead of the law. Along the way, Everett, Pete and Delmar encounter a colorful assortment of characters including a gifted black musician who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for better guitar playing (blues musician Chris Thomas King); a conniving, one-eyed Bible salesman named Big Dan Teague (Cyclops by way of John Goodman); a blustery campaigning governor (Charles Durning), and even a cow-hating George Babyface Nelson (a terrific Michael Badalucco).
They manage to stop just long enough to wax a hit record as the harmony-singing hillbillies, the Soggy Bottom Boys, and break up an enormous Klan meeting that seems to have been choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
In short, the film is full of the kinds of characters and situations that Coen aficionados have come to know and love. It even gives Fargo a run for its dialectic money with a mighty backwoods drawl that at times is a little tricky to decipher.
But somehow all the amusing parts don’t amount to all that much. Joel Coen’s direction ambles along agreeably, although after a stretch there’s a certain sameness to the narrative terrain.
Among the players, Clooney, looking like a sun-scorched, wild-eyed Latin matinee idol, has fun as the group’s pomade-obsessed spokesman, but relative newcomer Nelson practically steals the show as dim bulb Delmar.
The under-utilized Holly Hunter, meanwhile, puts in a couple of brief turns as Clooney’s estranged wife.
Visually, O Brother is a sun-burnished thing of beauty, with Roger Deakins’ accomplished cinematography summoning up Haskell Wexler’s memorable work on Bound For Glory.
With everyone gamely up for the trip, it’s too bad this Odyssey wasn’t able to arrive at a better destination. — Michael Rechtshaffen, originally published on May 15, 2000