Brotherly Love

The Coens create the first great musical of the 21st century.

WHO DOESN'T LOVE A musical? OK, pretty much everyone I asked said they hated musicals. However, those same people told me they loved O Brother Where Art Thou?, which struck me as odd, and not just because O Brother stars George Clooney.

No, it was because O Brother is a musical. Only, no one seemed to notice this. I guess it's a stealth musical. No one suddenly breaks into song mid-sentence, and there are no scenes where a man expresses his love of life by suddenly singing about sunshine and rain, but still, this is a musical, probably the best one in years. And years. And years.

O Brother is set in Depression-era Alabama, and it makes use of the "old timey" music that was becoming popular then. While "old timey" music later became "country music," this is not the crap that Garth Brooks vomits onto the stage to the tune of a million bucks a show. Rather, O Brother is filled with faithful if somewhat modernized renditions of the folky music of the Old South.

This is the Old South that featured everyone's favorite character, the fugitive from a chain gang. George Clooney, John Turturro and the inimitable Tim Blake Nelson play this part, running away from the cruel prison guards while they're still chained together at the ankles. Luckily, they happen upon a blind poet who foretells their future and helps them start their journey. See, Clooney's character is named Ulysses Everett McGill, emphasis on the Ulysses, and O Brother is a retelling of the Odyssey, from the perspective of two guys who have never read the book.

Those two guys are the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, who are responsible for Fargo, Raising Arizona and Blood Simple, some of the finest features ever to come out of that poor, backwater country we call the U.S.A.

With O Brother they've taken their love of old cinema, old clothing and old Classics Comic books and produced the first great musical of the 21st century.

As the convicts roam across the countryside looking for a mysterious buried treasure, they re-enact scenes from the Odyssey while encountering such Depression-era celebrities as Baby Face Nelson and Robert Johnson (here renamed "Tommy Johnson"). Meanwhile, they are pursued by the mysterious man with hollow eyes and a hound from hell, the Poseidon-like police chief who seeks to bring them back to jail.

As the convicts make their run for freedom, they speak in a language that never was, an imagined version of smooth-talking Southernisms and highfalutin pontificating. This is partly in homage to Preston Sturges' classic film Sullivan's Travels, one of the best-scripted features of the Depression. In Sullivan's Travels a millionaire movie director sets out on a tramp across the country to get in touch with the down-and-out peoples so that he can have a feel for the new movie he's making, a film called O Brother Where Art Thou. The director, Sullivan, has been making commercially successful slapstick comedies, but he wants to do a film with a larger social message.

The Coen brothers' O Brother is sort of an imagined version of what that film would have been like: lots of clumsy political commentary framed by screwball antics and half-assed references to classic literature. Somehow, this mix all works out swimmingly.

There's a cyclopean bible salesman who epitomizes man's inhumanity to man while speechifying about human nature, a Klan rally where the hooded Klansmen dance around like the evil soldiers from The Wizard of Oz, Baby Face Nelson shooting at sacred cows and suffering from manic-depressive disorder, Southern belles whose siren song leads the convicts to crash upon rocks, and just about every other possible take on the Odyssey, the Depression and cinematic versions of the Old South.

There's also a great supporting cast, including Charles Durning as Governor Menelaus O'Daniel; John Goodman as the Cyclops; Holly Hunter as Ulysses' wife, Penny; and Michael Badalucco as Babyface Nelson. Still, in spite of how fun the script and the acting are, what makes this movie worth seeing, and worth seeing repeatedly (I've already watched it twice), are the musical numbers.

The singing, dancing and slow, tinty and open cinematography by veteran lensman Roger Deakins (who's been nominated for three Academy Awards, and probably should have won all of them) are so captivating that you forget how artificial the action is. Which is really what makes this musical work.

In an age when exploding dinosaurs and mutant-powered space ships don't give filmgoers a moment's pause, it's too bad that something like a musical needs to disguise itself so that people aren't turned off by how "fake" it is. Still, since that's currently the case, fans of the musical can only give thanks that the Coens have found a way to slip one in under the radar.

O Brother Where Art Thou is playing at Catalina (881-0616) and Century El Con (202-3343).