O Brother, Where Art Thou?

January 28, 2012 9 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

Let’s take a step back a few months to the night of February 12, 2001. It was a few days away from the Academy Award nominations being announced and this movie was thought that it would garner several of those lil’ Golden guys. Well, as it turned out, it received two nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Neither won. I had read and heard nothing but good things about this movie, so it’s understandable that I was excited to see it. I am a fan of the Coen brothers’ work (me and everyone else, right?), but they are an acquired taste, to say the least. The credits ran, and I was all set to enjoy the movie until George Clooney uttered his first line. It was then that I had decided to hate this movie and though it had it’s funny parts, I kept my lips pursed and decided to show no emotion no matter what image was on the screen. This not only ruined the movie for me, but my girlfriend as well (who was excited to see it as she has a Master’s degree in English Literature). But enough about me…what was it exactly that made me hate this movie so much the first time I saw it? I suppose that I knew it was based on Homer’s “Odyssey”; well, loosely-based anyway. Apparently, the Coen Brothers had read it in college and wrote the screenplay based upon the things that they remembered from it. So a literal adaptation is something that you won’t get. Despite my comments, this movie found it’s audience. It’s grossed almost double what their Best Picture nominee, Fargo, did a few years ago. So without further ado, let’s delve into O Brother, Where Art Thou…

George Clooney’s title character of Ulysses (Obviously a reference to “The Odyssey”) is one of three men who bust out of prison. The others, Pete (John Tuturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) are in search of a mysterious treasure that Ulysses has promised them. In actuality, Ulysses is in search of his wife and family, but we don’t find that out until later on. Self-described as “adventurers”, that’s exactly what they are. Wearing the stereotypical prison colors (blue and white horizontal stripes), they make their way across Mississippi in search of the mysterious treasure. What they encounter along the way makes up the meat of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”. If you’ve never read “The Odyssey”, then you might be confused as to what is really part of the book and what is part of the Coen brother’s imagination. On a side note, they do have an active imagination, for example the disclaimer at the beginning of Fargo stated that “This film is based upon a true story”…well, that was a lie. Something made up, because that’s their twisted sense of humor. Anyway, with a little help, I figured out that the blind man who gives them a lift on the train tracks, the sirens, Cyclops (John Goodman, billed here as Big Dan Teague), and a few other scenes are directly out of the book. Everything else is just Hollywood magic. Along the way they meet many interesting people, such as Tommy Johnson, the black man who plays a guitar and has agreed to sell his soul to the devil. They record a song, “I am a man of constant sorrow” which is supposed to be sung by Ulysses, but they didn’t let Clooney croon the song. Nevertheless, a singing Clooney is nothing to be taken lightly.

Alongside all of this is a political race between Homer Stokes (get the “Homer” reference) and Pappy O’Daniel (Charles Durning) for the governor of Mississippi. Pappy belts out more “sonbitch” and “goddamn” references than you can shake a stick at, but it’s Charles Durning doing what he does best. If you make it to the end of the movie, you get to see him doing what he does best…dancing. Some religious references, some KKK ceremonies and some rather obscure events happen later on to lead you to believe what you’re seeing is not real. It’s not. It’s a movie. But part of the fun of losing yourself in this tale is the fact that you might not want to believe what you’re seeing is real. It’s not. It’s a movie. As much as the Coen brothers might want you to believe that this really happened, it didn’t. Still, I can’t decide, after my second viewing of this film, is a work of art or a waste of my time. I’m starting to believe the latter, though you have to really have that whole “suspension of disbelief” thing down pat to truly appreciate this movie. Look for Holly Hunter in a small, but memorable, part.

Video: How does it look?

I hate to keep doing this…I really do. I do have to admit that the day and date DVD’s that are coming out do look spectacular. They just do. It’s as simple as that. Not only does O Brother, Where Art Thou? sport a very unique palette, it looks simply divine. As you will learn by watching the featurette, “Paiting with Pixels”, this movie was filmed and then converted entirely to digital so that the very unique colors could be added digitally instead of manually. The result is simply devastating! Like Billy Elliot, this movie features the characters in focus and the background with the browns just out of focus to literally give it a 3-D look. It’s simply amazing. Most of the scenes take place outdoors and almost all have a very “earthy” tone to them and I really can’t stress how much this transfer impressed me. Top notch, super, reference…take you pick.

Audio: How does it sound?

While not as impressive as the video, the DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks do more than their fair share. I listened to the DTS during the viewing and then listened to the Dolby Digital during some “key scenes”. I can say that no matter what soundtrack you listen to, you’ll be more than satisfied. I do, as always, give the edge to the DTS soundtrack here as it tends to have a bit clearer dialogue track and the surrounds are a bit more effective. But when you’re listening to “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, does it really matter?

Supplements: What are the extras?

O Brother, Where Art Thou? does contain it’s share of extras, but it’s in the form of some featurettes and dual audio formats. The featurette, “Painting with Pixels” is the extra that I found most interesting, it tells how the color was adjusted to give the movie that “rustic” look and how the picture looks so darn good. Very interesting indeed. A script to storyboard comparison is just that, though not as interesting, it’s clear to see how much forethought was put into this movie. Simply amazing. The song that Clooney croons, “I am a man of constant sorrow” has it’s own video, but this is presented in Dolby Surround whereas the entire version is in the film in DTS or Dolby Digital, so I would recommend listening to it there instead, but it’s nice to have this feature. A theatrical trailer is the only other extra to be found and am I the only one wondering when the Coen brothers will lay down a commentary track? C’mon already…

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