O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2-Disc Special Edition) Review
The Coen Brothers really achieved top marks with The Big Lebowski in this reviewer's opinion. Yes, they received their highest accolades through their previous effort of Fargo, but that film although clever was cold both in landscape and in emotion. Lebowski however, gushed with rich humour and spectacularly three dimensional characters with a script that seems better on repeated viewings.
Thankfully, their follow up O Brother, Where Art Thou? has been constructed with a Lebowski cap on rather than a Fargo one, and in the process O Brother is a film whereby you have a constant smile on your face throughout its hundred and three minute running time.
The premise is typically ludicrous, and thus typically Joel and Ethan Coen – it’s the early twentieth century and three convicts have just escaped from a chain gang. Lead by the charismatic yet vain Everett Ulysses Mcgill (played in a wonderful comic performance by George Clooney), the trio that also consists of Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (Coen regular John Turturro) set out on an ‘odyssey’ to recover lost treasure on the twisted and surreal road ahead of them. As is the norm with Coen movies, the trio manage to somehow be deterred on the way, which involves being turned into frogs, gate-crashing a Klan meeting, becoming pop radio stars and being used as political pawns!
What is so funny about O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that it is supposed to be based on Homer’s Odyssey, even though the Coen Brothers have allegedly never read it! But then these were the people who claimed Fargo was based on true events and lied and also released the director’s cut of Blood Simple with more scenes cut than before!
What is so remarkable about O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that every aspect of the production is top notch. The acting by the three leads of Clooney, Turturro and Nelson are so believable and convincing that it’s a miraculously inspired piece of casting. Clooney is especially a breath of fresh air as Everett, and he should have been Oscar nominated, especially considering he won a Golden Globe for his performance. Although the actors mimed for their musical numbers and other voices were used, it is nice to know that Tim Blake Nelson sung his own vocals, and should be respected for that. The script by the Coens has the obligatory world class one liners and uniquely structured depth that is so lacking in most of the Hollywood movies of today. The cinematography by the underrated Roger Deakins is stunning and how he lost the Oscar to Peter Pau for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is anyone’s guess. The use of natural yellows and greens complements the film fully, and Deakins should have been honoured for that.
Probably the most famous aspect of the film however, is the wonderful Bluegrass soundtrack, featuring stand out cuts of I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow and Down In The River To Pray. The soundtrack is the perfect partner to the narrative structure of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and a recommended CD purchase. Pity an isolated score option wasn’t available on the DVD.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a witty, inventive, original masterpiece of twenty first century cinema. It loses its way a little in the third quarter, but by the conclusion the momentum has been regained. Some will hate it, many will love it, and if you fall into the latter category then well done for appreciating such a fine film.
Academy Awards 2000
Academy Award Nominations 2000
Best Adapted Screenplay - Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Best Cinematography - Roger Deakins
On first viewings, the impression is that the picture quality is an absolutely flawless 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. However, on repeated viewings, some digital artefacting is present, particularly in the darker scenes. This doesn't mar proceedings too much however, and the picture still maintains splendid colours that fully complements Roger Deakins’ breathtaking cinematography.
Sound Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the sound is crystal clear and features some nice atmospheric effects as well as good use of available audio space for songs such as Down In The River To Pray. Alas, the R2 doesn’t have the DTS soundtrack that adorns the R1 version, but this is only a minor quibble as the soundtrack is still very good.
Menu: Both discs have vintage menus following on the tone of the film, and have sepia tinted footage. Also, further menus are displayed like a shelf from the convenience store from the film, and each extra is displayed as items on the shelf. These are nice touches, and help maintain the spirit of O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Packaging: As this is a special edition, Momentum have maintained the original artwork of the first release and given the artwork an outer brown paper framing, which looks better than the other version and is more in keeping with the film.
Now that Momentum have re-released the film with the omitted extras from the Region 1 version, many consumers will be faced with a hard dilemma as to whether to reinvest in the film or not. The Region 2 version now has more extras than the Region 1, but these are only the trailers and cast interviews.
Cast And Crew Interviews: Cast and Crew interviews featuring all of the major players. It essentially feels more like a press kit than anything else, as the questions appear as text on screen and the interviewees are then shown answering the question. This is not the most ideal approach, but there are some nice insights to learn, such as the origins of the name of the film.
Trailer & TV Spots: I do sympathise for the marketing department as O Brother, Where Art Thou? must have been extremely hard to market towards the mass target segment. The trailers make the film look like a mess, and it makes you appreciate the fact that you followed your instinct and watched the film anyway.
Painting With Pixels - Featurette: A fascinating featurette that runs for nine minutes and describes the innovative processes that cinematographer Roger Deakins utilised in order to give the film the correct, sepia-tinted early twentieth century look. It's marvellous to note just how technology appears to be playing a bigger part in almost every type of movie nowadays, and this featurette certainly corroborates this.
Production Featurette: Essentially an edited together version of the individual cast and crew interviews, spliced with a few clips from the film. It's fairly short, and only touches the surface on a number of issues, such as the methods employed by the Coens when they direct a film.
Soggy Bottom Boys Music Video - I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow: Essentially, clips of the film edited together to form a music video for the MTV-esque TV channels. The song was a surprise radio hit in the US, and is certainly a very catchy and memorable tune from a fine soundtrack.
Down From The Mountain - Live Concert Teaser Featurette: An eighteen minute featurette that is essentially a teaser for the simultaneous DVD release of Down From The Mountain, a concert film featuring many of the bluegrass/country stars that featured on the soundtrack to the film. The featurette mentions the Coen Brothers collaboration with their soundtrack producer T Bone Burnett and talks about a few of the artists involved and how George Clooney lip-synched all of his songs. This is a nice, different featurette that demonstrates how one soundtrack can become popular to the point of having sold out spin-off concerts.
Storyboard-To-Film Comparisons: Two sequences are included, the 'Flood' sequence and the 'Ku-Klux-Klan' sequence, and they both feature a horizontal split screen with storyboards at the top and film scene at the bottom. The sequences last approximately six minutes each, and what is surprising about the Coen's storyboards is that although they are faithful to the final versions they are extremely lacking in artistic detail. Even so, any insight into the Coen's techniques is a welcome one.
A classic, visually inventive film that seems destined to become a firm cult favourite, O Brother Where Art Thou? is certainly a must own for any film lover. The extras, although improved over the first release, still aren't enough to warrant a special edition tag, and fans wondering whether to reinvest need not bother, as until a commentary or extensive documentary is released with the film the first version will suffice. However, if you don't own the film, this new Special Edition is a better reason than ever to part with your money.