If M. Night Shyamalan makes movies to be seen twice, then Joel and Ethan Coen make films to be pawed over a dozen times. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, an opulent and often slapstick updating of Homer's The Odyssey by way of Preston Sturges, Robert Johnson and Clark Gable, sneaks up on you, revealing its myriad delights and revelations long after it ends; if it's not one of this year's best films, it will be one of next year's finest. The brothers toss off jokes the way Randy Johnson throws a baseball; they whiz by, and only after they hit their mark are you awed by the skill, precision and, yes, passion with which they approach their craft. (At first glance, the dizzying Big Lebowski felt even more silly and slight -- a stoner's film noir.) The brothers' glee so overwhelms O Brother that it initially comes across like a film student's master's thesis, a one-note joke with variations on the same punchline. After all, theirs is a world in which Ku Klux Klan rallies resemble Busby Berkeley dance numbers as if scored by Walt Disney -- elaborate, funny and absolutely bereft of any terror.
The film's songs -- blues and bluegrass alike, some old and others only sounding vestigial -- don't echo for too long. And it seems co-writers and, essentially, co-directors Joel and Ethan are having so much of a good time -- George Clooney sporting a cockeyed mustache and hairnet, John Goodman as a one-eyed Klansman, John Turturro as an escaped con who may or may not have been turned into a frog -- that they've lost sight of how and where to end their trip down Memory Lane. Appropriate, then, that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is populated by so many blind men.
The film transplants The Odyssey into the rural South of the 1930s, and the Ulysses of this tale is not a soldier but a convict named Ulysses Everett McGill, who's escaped from a chain gang with fellow prisoners Delmar O'Donnel (indie director Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) in tow. Everett (that's what he goes by) has told his partners he's broken free to retrieve a million-dollar fortune he stashed away after heisting an armored car, but it's an altogether different reward he seeks: wife Penny (Holly Hunter), who's engaged to another man, and their bountiful brood of daughters. (Everett insists he's worthy of her love because, despite his prison record, he's "bona fide.") The brothers throw in just enough references to warrant the "based on" title card -- theirs is a treacherous road populated by sirens (given voice by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch, a most heavenly trio of singers) and a cyclops, this one an alleged man of God played by Goodman -- but find in their borrowed ancient tale a story that resonates here and now.
What they've created, in effect, is a campfire tale to be told and retold, shaped and reshaped, a modern-day myth about race, religion, politics, music, faith, redemption and love. They've created a world in which the real (and real dead) become mythical, transplanted ghosts. The Coens work in bluesman Robert Johnson (named Tommy Johnson and played by New Orleans blues singer/guitarist Chris Thomas King) at the crossroads, where he's just traded his soul to the devil for guitar prowess ("Well," Tommy insists, "I wasn't using it"); George "Babyface" Nelson (The Practice's Michael Badalucco) mowing down cattle and coppers with a Tommy gun, as if to prove he's unworthy of his simpy nickname; and Gov. Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning) campaigning across Mississippi, even though the real O'Daniel led his western-swinging Light Crust Doughboys across the Texas plains.
Maybe the movie comes across as lightweight because its cast never stops grinning, dancing or breaking out in song. As Everett, Clooney has never seemed more alive onscreen; long gone are the tics, the grimaces, the actor's gimmicks. Everett may be vain -- he goes to sleep in a hairnet and wakes up always wondering how his "coiffure" looks -- but he's also a sad man, empty despite the thrills of chasing peril down the road home. "I am a man of constant sorrow," Everett (actually, Dan Tyminski) sings into the microphone of a blind disc jockey (NewsRadio's Stephen Root); only later do you realize he's telling the truth. Everett speaks so danged fancy ("It's a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart," he tells his pals, who look at him as though he's talking crazy gibberish), it's easy to mistake him for glib -- a modern-day Clark Gable hiding behind a grinning façade and beneath hair so slicked back with pomade it weighs him down. Clooney has become a movie star, and the Coens have given him his very own It Happened One Night. The man and the movie are downright bona fide.