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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2001

And, now, a return to the classics

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Rating: * * * * 1/2 Director: Joel Coen Running time: 107 minutes Language: English Now showing

The Coen brothers don't make the sort of films that make you fall down on all fours, crying out "genius!" as you kiss the ground they trod on -- like, say, the works of Paul Thomas Anderson or Martin Scorsese -- but they are expert craftsmen, and have quietly assembled perhaps the strongest filmography of any directors currently working in America.

Think about it: Joel and Ethan Coen, over a span of two decades, have not made a bad film. Ever.

The Coens make films you can live with, the sort you can toss into the VCR any late night for the umpteenth time and still enjoy wholeheartedly. Think about all the most fundamental pleasures of cinema -- the Coens deliver them in spades. Memorable characters? Take Marge, the stolid, pregnant cop in "Fargo," or the perpetually dazed Dude from "The Big Lebowski."

Quotable dialogue? Remember "You know, for kids!" or "Nobody f**ks with The Jesus!" Unforgettable moments? Try the interrupted skyscraper plunge from "The Hudsucker Proxy" or that eerie drifting hat from "Miller's Crossing." And attention to detail, the sort that makes that fifth or ninth viewing still interesting? Don't get me started.

On some days, I'd be tempted to call them America's best working directors (certainly they've been the most consistent), and their latest, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" makes me want to shout it from the rooftops. Brothers and sisters, let me testify that I have seen the light, and that you can, too, at Cine Saison.

"O Brother" sees the Coens in full piss-taking mode, starting their tale of chain-gang escapees in the Depression-era Deep South with -- get this -- a title card reading "Based on 'The Odyssey' by Homer." Yes, they milk it for all it's worth, with a narrator sagely intoning "O Muse! Sing, and through me tell that story . . ." merging seamlessly into a chain-gang busting rocks and singing a mournful lament.

The film's hero, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), is a Clark Gable wannabe obsessed with hair pomade, who's intent on busting out of prison with his chain-gang buddies, simple-minded Delmar O'Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson) and hot-headed hillbilly Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro). As Everett tells them, they have four days to claim the loot he hid before he was jailed, or else the land will be submerged due to a new dam and the money forever lost. Actually, though, he's trying to get back to his wife, Penelope (Holly Hunter). (Like that other Ulysses . . .)

After a narrow escape from the police, the boys embark upon a journey during which they meet any number of colorful characters -- from a mysterious blues guitarist they pick up "down at the crossroads" (ho-ho) to an Edward G. Robinson look-alike who maniacally blasts his tommy-gun at the pursuing "coppers." When he turns his gun on a nearby pasture, snarling "I hate cows worse than cops!" it's almost a Farrelly brothers moment, but given substance by being a brilliant satire of the desperados from classic 1930s gangster movies.

In that sense, "O Brother" is closest in spirit to "The Hudsucker Proxy," shamelessly riffing on classic films and period Americana while also fashioning a loving homage to them. The Coens are brazen enough even to echo a scene from "The Wizard of Oz," where our trio of heroes infiltrate a Ku Klux Klan rally in much the same way that Dorothy's rescuers intervened in the Wicked Witch's castle. And, furthering the joke, the KKK's "Grand Cyclops" provides another Homeric pun.

But while the Coens revel in their Deep South caricatures -- shyster Bible salesmen, lynch mobs and corrupt gentleman politicos in white linen suits -- they also indulge in a serious recreation of the era's music. The plot involves Everett and friends recording a radio single as The Soggy Bottom Boys that, unbeknownst to them, becomes a massive hit while they're on the lam. While the sight of John Turturro yodeling and slapping his thighs may leave you gasping for air, the trio sounds like magic, as does every number on this must-have soundtrack. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, it is full of ethereal gospel and rollicking bluegrass by artists like Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss.

The synch between visuals and music is absolutely exquisite when the Coens go for those dreamlike reveries that they insist on sneaking into almost every film. There's a wonderful moment when the convicts encounter a white-robed congregation processing toward a river baptism, their gentle approach easing the escapees' mild panic. But the film's centerpiece is surely when Everett, Delmar and Pete get waylaid by the Sirens, three ravishingly beautiful women doing their laundry by a river who bewitch the boys with kisses and moonshine.

It's a magical moment of beauty and illusion, and it's this ability to shift gears from scene to scene, to indulge in diversions without losing a sense of direction, that makes the Coens' films so damn enjoyable. High art, this ain't, but the Coens prove that entertainment is capable of encompassing far more than mainstream cinema ever dares to dream possible. See it and believe.

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