In the beginning of O Brother Where Art Thou?, a title card informs us that it was inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. When I saw that, I didn’t know whether to believe it – Fargo started out saying it was based on a true story whereas it actually was not. At the end of this quirky, often funny movie, I came to the conclusion that it did have a bit of Odyssey in it, both in form and in spirit. (I also learnt later that the Coens claimed never to have read Odyssey, which isn’t surprising either.)
For instance, the hero’s name is Ulysses, his wife’s name is Penny (short for Penelope, no doubt), a blind prophet bookends the movie… I could go on about the sirens and the Cyclops and everything, but that’s not what makes it an adaptation in my view. Homer’s “Odyssey” is not so much an epic with a single theme but a series of older stories strung together on a basic plot about one man trying to get back home. Sirens, Cyclops, Calypso… it’s really just one damn thing after another. As a result, you could read any part of Odyssey without really knowing what came before or hence, and still enjoy it.
Set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, O Brother Where Art Thou? offers a similar experience as it follows three prisoners, led by Ulysses Everett McGill, as they escape from a penal farm and go in search of a treasure that Ulysses had apparently stashed away before his arrest. On the way, they have all sorts of adventures as they go across the state of Mississippi. They pick up a blues singer named Robert Johnson who has apparently sold his soul to the Devil in return for blues prowess, record a hit song with him as the Soggy Bottom Boys. Then they meet a bank robber named Robery “Babyface” Nelson (there was a real character by that name during that era, I think) and rob a bank. Then… Since we realize very early on that this is not a plot-driven story, our payoff is not in where it eventually leads, but simply in what happens next. This is just a series of great scenes, and that’s what makes it so much fun.
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? is also a musical – mostly bluegrass. The two scenes that stood out for me both involve singing.
Aside: Robert Johnson, for instance, is a reference to a real Robert Johnson, one of the legends of the blues world. His life is shrouded in mystery. RJ is indeed reputed to have sold his soul to the devil in return for his incredible guitar prowess. He left behind only 29 songs ( 42 different takes ) which are one of the most precious legacies in blues history. (Gyan courtesy: Supratik Chaudhuri)
The first is a scene where the three convicts (played by George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) come upon a river where three beautiful women are singing and bathing. They sing Didn’t leave nobody but the baby, and the men fall under their spell for a while. Well, so did I. To me, this scene defines the word “mesmerising.”
The second is a scene right at the end where our heroes perform I’m a man of constant sorrow. The first performance, earlier on, was exhilarating. This one manages to retain that spirit despite the repetition, and add a triumphant note to it as well. This is Ulysses finally coming home. The obviously fake beards, and the way they keep pulling on it to emphasize that it’s fake, is a particularly nice touch.
This is a movie rich in trivia for quizzing enthusiasts such as myself. However, instead of listing all that I know here, let me just give you a sample, an excerpt from Scott Renshaw’s review of the movie:
If you really want a sense of what the Coens are after in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it helps to know the origin of the title. In Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, a Depression-era filmmaker popular for his frivolous comedies decides to hit the road in America to research an important, significant film story — a story he plans to call O Brother, Where Art Thou? Ultimately, he discovers that people love frivolous comedies, and that there’s no shame in creating them. Forget epics of the common man; make them laugh, and you’ve got them right where you want them, and right where they want to be.