O Brother, Where Art Thou? Review
Assuming it's acceptable to classify O Brother, Where Art Thou? as a musical, was there a better film of the genre in the previous decade than the Coens' 2000 loose retelling of a certain Greek epic poem? The movie is littered with songs owing a debt to folk, bluegrass and Americana music, and its soundtrack was a massive hit at retail, selling over seven million copies in the U.S. alone, back when people actually purchased physical copies of their music. (A new 10th Anniversary edition of the soundtrack, still the best-selling one of the century, was also recently released.) The tunes, highlighted by a rendering of "Man of Constant Sorrow" that quickly became a modern classic, are beautifully integrated into the film and seem to make what's otherwise a very fun, entertaining movie even more so. Stomp your feet, sway your hips and the like.
Yet there's a danger there when considering O Brother only next to its music. Even with such a celebrated association to its Grammy-winning soundtrack album, the film's legs, the things that make it stand up after more than a decade and across multiple viewings, aren't really dependent on its twang. The Coens, in their own weird and quirk-infested way, took a sip of Homer's The Odyssey and crafted some kind of masterpiece unlike virtually anything in recent memory. It's a road movie, a stumbling adventure movie and a dry comedy of one-liners and unpredictable situations. Essentially, it's the Coens in all their usual glory but now with a newfound level of accessibility buoyed by a game performance from George Clooney. As escaped convict Ulysses Everett McGill, the actor developed a previously unseen layer for the silver screen - that of an imbecile. The Coens have since helped Clooney get in touch with his inner idiot twice more, in Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading. Both of these are less persuasive examples of Clooney's comedic talents but nonetheless better than their reputations might suggest. He hasn't really harnessed the same broadness seen in the Coens' films when trying comedy elsewhere, and O Brother remains the apex of that dimension of Clooney's career.
Speaking of George Clooney's place in Hollywood, it's important to remember how uncertain it was when O Brother was released. He'd left ER in early 1999, the same year Three Kings was released, and gotten good notices for Out of Sight in 1998, but was still struggling to establish himself with the moviegoing public as a viable leading man. The summer of 2000 saw Clooney's first big box office hit, not counting Batman & Robin, with The Perfect Storm, a film less about its lead actor than the degree of spectacle it promised at the time. Thus, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with its slow-burn success and lingering relevance in the public consciousness, was a key film in establishing Clooney as a movie star. He also garnered a Golden Globe award for his efforts. The Coens, too, were sort of transformed from being fringe figures and critical darlings whose movies had never really caught on with the general public into filmmakers of much greater mainstream recognition.
They more or less squandered that new attention with the black and white oddity The Man Who Wasn't There the next year and an inert one-two punch afterward of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers before rejuvenating their careers with No Country for Old Men. If the latter film hadn't managed to right the Coens' ship, one wonders whether the success of O Brother might have been more of a negative than a positive in the long run. Instead, the brothers have managed to somewhat reinvent themselves repeatedly by tackling new subjects, time periods and locales with their signature wit and humor. Their ability to vividly portray such varied settings, be it Los Angeles in the early nineties, the deep south in the thirties, west Texas at the dawn of the eighties, and so on, has become remarkable. It's not just that the many varied atmospheres are captured in their films. The Coens also manage to convey an authenticity and relative respect for the eras and areas they're recreating. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a clean example of showing the deep South in a way that doesn't belittle or make fun of it but instead pays an unorthodox tribute to the region.
The journey of the three escaped convicts, with John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson joining Clooney, becomes an excuse to thrust them into various comedic and often unrelated episodes, complete with ham-inflected guest turns by the likes of John Goodman, Stephen Root and Charles Durning. "Oh George, not the livestock," is a line of deadpan brilliance that comes out of the boys' unlikely experience with notorious bank robber George Nelson (played by Michael Badalucco). The basically goodhearted stupidity of the fugitives helps them become endearing figures who, with the help of the Coens' inspired dialogue and storytelling skills, guide the film from one encounter to the next.
The road movie element is so successful that one hardly cares about the fact that the convicts' path seems incredibly convoluted and convenient. Their ultimate destination, while not the one promised throughout the film, proves downright quaint for a Coens' movie, while also welcoming back Holly Hunter to the directors' cast list. It's a development that tries to warm parts of the heart no one previously knew the Coens even had. If it feels like a slight concession, absent the dark challenge of some of their other films, then that shouldn't really be a detriment. Different Coens' films for different people, with O Brother, Where Art Thou? sweeping up a pretty big range of those who may have been otherwise apathetic.
This dual-layered Blu-ray from Touchstone and Buena Vista Home Entertainment, the U.S. release, is encoded for all regions. A stellar technical presentation offsets a disappointingly meager collection of special features, made even less relevant by still being in standard definition.
The 2.35:1 image looks nice and sharp, with exceptional fluidity of motion. The color palette favors a dusty, almost sepia appearance instead of natural tones. Available detail is impressive. There are no instances of damage afflicting the appearance. A very strong transfer on the whole, easy to recommend without hesitation.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track offered is also a winner. It presents dialogue clearly, at a consistent and pleasing volume. The various songs all sound better than they ever could have on the standard definition release. They're now more full to the ear and enveloping. Especially surprising is how robust the gun shots in the film register. Little noises in the sound design also come through quite well. The audio here is a definite standout. A Dolby Digital 2.0 Spanish dub is also available, as are subtitles in English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish. They are white in color.
Moving on to the bonus material, a making-of featurette (8:39), in 1.33:1, is typical pap but still rather enjoyable. The Coens always seem so elusive on their films' discs that one takes more notice when they do speak, even if it's for a promotional piece like this. It's short but highly watchable.
A pair of storyboard-to-screen comparisons are done rather well, giving the viewer the option to toggle from the scene in the film, to the accompanying storyboards, and even a direct comparison of the two. These are available for "The Flood" (6:53) and "The Klan" (6:19).
Rounding things out are the music video (3:28) for "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" and a really terrible theatrical trailer (2:32) for the film.
There are also previews that play when you insert the disc, for things like the upcoming Real Steel, but these aren't accessible from the main menu screen.