[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
The first weekend of the 53rd Cannes Film Festival couldn’t have dawned more auspiciously. The Coen brothers are back with their first movie of the millennium and it’s a doozy. Taking their title from a maudlin catchphrase of the Great Depression—and from the mock-allegory with which Preston Sturges’s 1942 classic Sullivan’s Travels began—they’ve come up (again) with a complete original: a hilarious lowbrow comedy that only highbrows could have made, filled with an exultant sense of how big and startling and beautiful the pleasures of movies can be.
In a Southland all but leached of color, three convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) escape from a chain gang. Their abortive attempt to hop a freight lands them instead aboard a railway handcar being pumped across the wasteland by a blind and ancient black man, who proceeds to lay an ornate prophecy upon them. The fugitives are dubious, since the prophecy tends to downplay the “treasure” they aim to recover from a valley nearby—preferably within the next four days, after which the place will be underwater thanks to the government’s newfangled Tennessee Valley Authority. Still, we can’t help noticing, via the ecstatic overhead shot that caps the blind man’s words, that the heretofore-bleak landscape now glows mustard-gold.
Did we mention that the screenplay credit reads “based on The Odyssey by Homer”? You don’t want to know too much in advance about the trio’s adventures. The comic invention, the constant surprises and satisfactions of the impeccably composed shots, the song score by T Bone Burnett—the sheer gusto of the proceedings will sweep you along as the Coens work their pixilated riffs on success and despair, American-style. The behavioral level is pitched downwind of the Ritz Brothers (George Clooney’s Everett Ulysses McGill figures he’s cut out for ringleader as “the one with the capacity for abstract thoughts”), and the Coens are too cool to allow these gavoons any furtive tenderness or “privileged moments” to attest that they’re indeed our brothers. But in its lunatic story arcs and audacious play with old-time “happy ending” stratagems, O Brother Where Art Thou? honors the communal entertainment forms and formulas of a bygone age. It’s a testament to the kind of faith that Sturges’s Sullivan acquired on his travels, and that, for all their postmodernness, the Coens share.