In Joel and Ethan Coen's joyous musical comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the endless parlor game of "Name That Allusion" starts with the title, a reference to Preston Sturges' 1942 classic Sullivan's Travels. In that film, a popular director of escapist Hollywood fare announces his plans to make an earnest American epic, "a true canvas of the suffering of humanity." To research the project, he dresses up like a hobo and tries to blend in with the great unwashed, finding about as much success as yuppie Albert Brooks does "touching Indians" in Lost In America. Sturges' potent satire mocks the folly of artists who pretend to understand how the other half lives but can't truly know their experience, a lesson the Coens have clearly taken to heart. Had the Coens attempted any kind of verisimilitude in their depiction of the Depression-era South, O Brother would have been as authentic and meaningful as Barton Fink's crying fishmongers. Instead, they've crafted something far richer and more entertaining: a loving homage to '30s Americana assembled from popular icons and artifacts, and told with the intoxicating energy of a Warner Brothers cartoon. Swimming with references to literature, movies, and especially the evocative bluegrass and country music of the period—superbly arranged by T-Bone Burnett—the film cross-pollinates Clark Gable, Robert Johnson, Busby Berkeley, The Wizard Of Oz, and the KKK. And that's just in one bravura sequence. To add another layer to the mix, the story is based in part on Homer's The Odyssey, casting George Clooney as an escaped Mississippi convict whose long journey home to his wife (Holly Hunter) includes run-ins with a blind soothsayer, a trio of sirens, and a Cyclops (John Goodman). Joining him in chains are fellow escapees John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson, who are drawn by the promise of splitting Clooney's buried treasure. Meanwhile, the state is in the midst of a heated gubernatorial race between listless incumbent Charles Durning and a candidate (Wayne Duvall) who claims to be a sweeping reformer and "a friend to the little people," meaning he travels with a midget and a broom. O Brother moves along the same loose, ramshackle narrative lines the Coens mastered with The Big Lebowski, which risk falling into flat and disjointed episodes but instead hold boundless possibilities. Pleasure can be gleaned from every aspect of the production—the Soggy Bottom Boys' performance of "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" is a particular highlight—but the Coens are serious about their hero's salvation and sincere in their affection for the period. Coming from filmmakers many dismiss as condescending smart-alecks, O Brother's warmth is a disarming surprise.
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