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Oh Brothers,

what happened to thy genius?

The Coen brothers can do no wrong, you say? Fargo was a masterpiece, Raising Arizona makes you laugh so hard you fall off the couch, Blood Simple modernized film noir with a twist, Barton Fink oozed, literally, with subtle genius, etc, etc. And I agree, until now. I feel alone on the planet when I say that I felt physically trapped in the metal movie theater seat watching Oh, Brother Where Art Thou--their homage to Homer's Odyssey, and more interestingly, to Preston Sturges' Sullivanís Travels (1942). Itís a cool connection to make, without a doubt. Sturges's camera followed a dissatisfied Hollywood director on his travels as a homeless poseur, trying to get at the real grit and meaning of life, the "people" and all that class-conscious jazz. The result was a hilarious and surprisingly deep film that's made even more poignant by its simplicity. Well, that's what the Coens aim their talents at this time, but the whole thing smacks of elitism, or laziness, or something. Or maybe it's just me.

Their version of the Homer / Sturges combo has three hillbilly convicts escaping the chain gang one fine day, and running ass-backwards through the South, encountering blind seers (a black man that carries 'em down the railroad tracks), a Cyclops-cum-Bible salesman (John Goodman, in a role not dissimilar to the insurance salesman that befriended the needy Barton Fink), and three Sirens washing in the river. They're hiding from the cops, the Klan, and searching for some sort of treasure promised to them by the leader of the pack, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney)--a guy who's obsessed with Dapper Dan hair grease, and the sole member of the trio who possesses any sort of smarts at all.

The other two crackers, Pete (John Turturro, who it was hard for me to see as a dumb-ass okie) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) follow along, occasionally throwing in some village-idiot wisdom for laughs. There's a political race going on as they wander semi-aimlessly around, and they nonchalantly record a song for a blind radio station owner to make some quick cash to fund their grassroots odyssey. The song becomes an instant hit that has everyone searching for the mysterious Salty Bottom Boys, as they called themselves on the spot, when the radioman asked. (And all of this ties together in the film, but you'll have to see it to understand the why's and how's).

The Coens haven't gotten stylistically lazy. The white hot yellow filter they use to create the feel of a scorching southern climate works, and looks beautiful--it reminded me of Terrance Mallick's dry, insect laden tableaus in Days of Heaven. Their camera still captures that slapstick surrealism that underlies all of their comedy--in one scene they frame a KKK meeting as a sort of sick vaudeville act. The tent-headed members dancing in unison look so ridiculous you can't help but laugh. Looking back at the film, looking at individual scenes, it seems like a simple comic trek that works in a Big Lebowski kind of way. The sad truth of it is that I was bored out of my mind waiting for something exciting, something to hold on to and carry me giddily through to the story's end. I never found it though, and I rushed out of that godforsaken theater as soon as the credits started to roll.


Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
Rated PG-13
1 hour 52 minutes

George Clooney
John Turturro
Tim Blake Nelson
Holly Hunter
John Goodman