Despite a bevy of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, including a Globe win for George Clooney as Best Actor in a musical/comedy, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was something of a letdown to the more ardent fans of director/screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen. It's a strange comment to make about artists who have always suffused their work with fantasy and eccentricity, but the Coens had previously cherished a certain subtlety in their characterizations -- most obviously in the masterwork Fargo, but even in such surprising places as the gonzo classic Raising Arizona. In O Brother, all nuance is thrown out the window as the cast goes hog-wild making its 1930s Southerners as buck-toothed and ignorant as possible, with even the award-winning Clooney bugging out his eyes at every turn. This insult undermines the smart idea to transplant The Odyssey to a mythical version of the American South, which is re-created with impeccably sepia-toned art direction, and a generous helping of the Coens' classic stylized quirks. As with the acting, however, it takes an effort uncharacteristic of the Coens to link the various episodes together, and each feels pressed to the slapstick breaking point, resulting in overkill that's anathema to their easy charm. It's as though the Coens were momentarily invaded by another pair of successful cinematic brothers, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, whose love of outrageous physical comedy had sent ripples through the industry by the time of filming. Without a doubt, O Brother's best feature is its winning hillbilly soundtrack, especially the memorable rendition of "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," which elevates the film every time the Soggy Bottom Boys sing it.
by Derek Armstrong review