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O Brother, Where Art Thou?

(2000) *** Pg
106 min. Touchstone Pictures. Director: Joel Coen. Cast: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter.

/content/films/4221/1.jpgLarky to a fault, Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou? riffs on Homer's Odyssey and the Bible to no particular end. The Coen Brothers do weave political and religious satire into their comic tapestry, but mostly they use their kinda-update of The Odyssey (updating only so far as the 1930s, mind you) as a clothesline for hillbilly jokes and roots music. T-Bone Burnett's musical supervision enriches the film immeasurably, elevating it from what the Coens have half-jokingly referred to as their "Ma and Pa Kettle" movie (or "the Lawrence of Arabia of hayseed movies") into something approaching a modern movie musical.

In an outright goofy performance that's aging well, George Clooney stars as Ulysses Everett McGill, the de facto "brains" of three bound escapees from a 1937 chain gang. With Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) in tow, Ulysses must make the long journey home to his wife Penny (Holly Hunter, amusingly the opposite of an understanding spouse). The analog to Homer is clear enough, though as broad as the comedy: along the way, the "man of twists and turns" encounters supernatural advice, distractions, and obstacles including a "Blind Seer" (Lee Weaver), a coterie of Sirens, a "cyclops" (John Goodman's monstrous Bible salesman Daniel "Big Dan" Teague), and assorted other monsters (politicians and the Klan, not mutually exclusive) on the way to face, rather anticlimactically, rival suitor Vernon T. Waldrip (Ray McKinnon).

The film's most memorable setpiece finds the trio of antiheroes lighting upon a surreal Klan rally simultaneously redolent of The Wizard of Oz's "March of the Winkies," a mass-synchronized Busby Berkeley number, and a Nazi rally; it's at once a bit scary and a lot funny, an effect enhanced by the revelation that the apparently progressive gubernatorial candidate—running on an anti-corruption platform—spits away from the head of the racist class. But the picaresque comedy is hit and miss, the horrors and delights of the Coens' random universe having little to no lasting emotional impact on their little-man heroes.

Given that, one wishes the movie were funnier and a bit less discomfiting in its oh-so-smart superiority to dimwitted characters; to be fair, the idiots who have heart do get sympathetic credit for it. Mostly, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a grabbag of literary, cinematic, musical, and historical allusions (the title movie-nerdily refers to the unseen movie within Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels), cameos from Coen faves (Michael Badalucco as George "Babyface" Nelson; Charles Durning as a keenly opportunistic, high-stepping politician), and energetic musical numbers, like "Man of Constant Sorrow," a fictional and (as it turns out) actual hit single. One thing is certain: even with its mock-pretentious parallelism to The Odyssey—calculatedly undercut even further by the Coens' later insistence that they never read Homer's epic—O Brother, Where Art Thou? refuses to take itself seriously, which is both its principal failing and its charm.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 9/13/2011

Distributor: Touchstone Home Video

/content/films/4221/2.jpgDisney's digital-to-digital Blu-ray presentation of O Brother Where Art Thou?—supervised by cinematographer Roger Deakins—beautifully and faithfully presents the film. The exacting color representation impresses with rich tones, and contrast and black level prove impeccable. Detail is as revelatory as can be, and the image is tight and spotless with nary a compression artifact to be found. Nearly as impressive is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix: although it only seldom takes advantage of the rear channels, those moments are expertly calibrated, and the dialogue and music are always clear, colorful, and full bodied.

As is common for a Coen disc, bonus features on this Blu-ray (replicating the DVD) are limited to a smattering of promotional material. First up is "The Making of O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (8:39, SD). Happily, we get to hear from Joel and Ethan Coen here, as well as Roger Deakins, George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, and Holly Hunter. The featurette offers tantalizing tidbits, but is over all too soon.

Storyboard to Scene Comparisons include "The Flood" (6:53, SD) and "The Klan" (6:19, SD). Each allows the viewer simultaneously to compare a finished sequence to its storyboard or to switch between the two views.

Lastly, we get "Music Video: 'I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow'" (3:28, SD) and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:32, SD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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