The Odyssey is a grand book. Ever since a blind poet collected its various tales a few thousand years ago, it has survived and grown through innumerable retellings and variations. Virgil, following its general structure, told of Aeneas founding Rome. James Joyce, two millennia later -- yes yes o yes -- wandered a guy named Bloom around Dublin. It's more prominent than ever this year, as Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick tied 2001 to the epic's title and sent a manic computer -- I'm sorry, Dave, I can't do that right now -- hurtling through space to the sounds of Richard Strauss' pounding tympani. We've seen it retold in puppet shows, shrunken into five minute works of literature, and parodied in a thousand ways.
So I wouldn't think, offhand, that anyone could write a particularly fresh comedy based on that material. Nor is the depression-era South a prime place for new work. Haven't we mined this material out already?
But the Coen brothers have pulled off miracles before. They've sent their camera to a follow a pregnant detective into the Minnesota winter, and won awards for Fargo. They've had Nicolas Cage parody suburban life (Raising Arizona), watched Jeff Bridges polish his bowling (The Big Lebowski), and ripped apart city life with Tim Robbins and Paul Newman (The Hudsucker Proxy). Now they've brought in George Clooney to be Ulysses in their own retelling of the classic legend, set in 1930s Mississippi: O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
The movie starts off ambitiously -- the opening scene invokes the first few lines of the Odyssey. It is the second-most audacious opening of the year, after Magnolia's introductory sequence of astounding coincidences. Few films can deliver on that sort of promise, but O Brother does.
The story passes right by the depths of Homer's epic, giving us instead an elegant bare-bones outline of some favorite characters and scenes. There's a Cyclops (John Goodman); there are three sirens; there are even some lotus eaters; there's a blind seer, who predicts the rest of the story; and in the end, Ulysses needs to win back his wife.
But you can put away your plot-points checklist. We don't get a direct retelling of the Odyssey. Penelope (Helen Hunt, in a minor role) has changed a great deal, as has Telemachus. There's no obvious Circe, no Scylla or Charybdis, and somehow the several shiploads of loyal, disposable sailors change into the wonderful co-starring roles of John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson. They're joined by bluesman Chris Thomas King, who plays the legendary Tommy Johnson, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar-playing might. And, despite Ulysses' obsession with the stuff, Dapper Dan's Hair Pomade occurs -- according to my latest searches -- nowhere in Fitzgerald's translation.
The movie has an astounding soundtrack. I wouldn't be in the least surprised if the soundtrack single-handedly brings back an interest in bluegrass music. The movie is set to the beautiful music of the South, and the Coens have gone to some effort to find outstanding tunes. The soundtrack for this film was actually recorded in advance, and almost every scene has music running behind it. A musical group, "The Soggy Bottom Boys," was created in Nashville to record the theme track, "A Man of Constant Sorrows." Finally, the Coens' yen for this music -- remember the refrains of "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" in Hudsucker and Arizona? -- comes to life.
This movie allows me to hope for a strong American regrowth in the slumbering magical realism genre. More sophisticated than the suspension of disbelief that too many films demand of us today, magical realism attempts to bring the viewer into another world, a world close to our own, but where fantasy makes sense, and can be used to accentuate the cultural shifts the characters encounter. The fantastic elements are delivered deadpan, with less a sense of wonder than an an accenting edge.
Mexico's 1992 Like Water for Chocolate was one example, with a woman who could cook emotions into her food. (Her sister, burning with erotic tension, sets a shower on fire.) More recently, Magnolia invoked it when a dozen characters sang in unison and frogs fell from the sky.
O Brother is more laid back about its magic. As the heroes flee jail, they are entering a new and strange world, one that shimmers a bit around the edges. The characters they meet are fantastic, but the protagonists work their way pragmatically along. We expect the magic, we're given the prophecies -- from both seers and newspapers -- well in advance, and everyone talks about this formative event that will happen. And yet, when it does, it's unearthly; waves of light and color overwhelm us, and the characters are swept away.
You'll see the KKK in a chilling song-and-dance number. You'll see the Tennessee Valley Authority made into a force of heaven. You'll laugh aloud at Turturro's dance sequence in false beard. You'll visit a far-away world, where gubernatorial campaigns are based on musical guest appearances. And you'll enjoy the Odyssey, retold once again, completely fresh.
Danyel Fisher is a graduate student, and writes reviews in order to not do his thesis.
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