Modern retellings of classic tales are nothing new, from Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet to Blancanieves, Snow White set in 1930s Spain. But this interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey – set in depression era Mississipi – has to be one of the strangest; and also one of the most inspired.
It follows three escaped convicts, Ulysses, Peter and Delmar (George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) on their search for Ulysses’ treasure. What follows is essentially a road movie documenting their progress and the range of characters they encounter.
Like all good adaptations, O Brother Where Art Thou? will satisfy those who are familiar with the source material and those who aren’t. There are aspects of the film clearly close to the classic text, and other more general nods. But even if you don’t know your Sirens from your Cyclops, there’s plenty here to enjoy.
The Coen brothers’ main strengths are in creating believable worlds and characters, and making extremely likeable films, but laugh out loud hilarious they are not. Like most of their films this is gently amusing in places, but enjoyable more for the events themselves than their comedic value.
There are religious elements to the film which may or may not be trying to say something. On the one hand there’s a Bible salesman who is making a fortune out of people’s misery in the depression, and the KKK is obviously a far from flattering representation of Christianity. At the other end of the spectrum, quasi-religious events in the final act lend support to the idea of redemption, although as Ulysses points out, there must be a logical, scientific explanation.
George Clooney is an inspired casting choice as Ulysses, the ringleader of the trio, channelling the spirit of Jack Nicholson in his voice, coupled with a brilliant physical performance. He does, perhaps, feel slightly too good looking, as his A list movie star features stand out amongst the assortment of sore thumbs that are the rest of the cast, but that’s not really his fault. There are also some cracking musical numbers to lift the mood and a comedy KKK scene to rival Django Unchained.
O Brother Where Art Thou? has an endearing plot that develops well, and is quirky and unusual enough to remain interesting throughout. The range of characters on display are a fascinating mix, and the film’s style of going from person to person is in-keeping with the source material, feeling akin to films like The Wizard of Oz, Big Fish or Alice in Wonderland with its assortment of eccentrics. Like these films, seemingly incosenquential encounters early on wrap round and come together at a later stage, making an intially disjointed film into a very tidy package.