The surprising thing about movies is not that most of them are stupid, but that any of them are smart. This blinding flash of insight came to me not long ago as I sat in my neighborhood movie house and watched a more than usually bone-headed reel of trailers advertising this summer’s coming attractions. I wouldn’t have willingly paid a quarter to see a single one of them, even with free popcorn thrown in. (Do not expect to read about Pearl Harbor in this space.) Of course they were dumb. They’re supposed to be dumb, so as to attract the largest possible audience of paying dummies. Yet in spite of the film industry’s unswerving commitment to stupidity, smart movies somehow manage to get made, admittedly not in jaw-droppingly large quantities—I saw six last year, one of them English—but often enough that I rarely feel tempted to throw up my hands and abandon all hope for the cinema.
Just because I’m not a cynic doesn’t make me an optimist, though. I know I’m betting against the house every time I walk into a theater. For this reason, I sometimes find myself temporarily disarmed by a movie that is smart on the surface; less often, a film may simulate smartness so effectively that I go home thinking it was good and only later realize that I’ve been hornswoggled.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s films fall between these two stools. I’ve seen all the Coen brothers’ movies (Joel directs, Ethan produces, both write the scripts), and in nearly every case, I had the same sequence of mixed feelings, not after the fact but on the spot. First came a rush of something like relief, usually within the first minute or two: Whatever else Blood Simple, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Fargo were, they weren’t stupid. Thus reassured, I relaxed and started to enjoy myself—but then second thoughts started to creep in, not about how smart the Coens were but about the ends to which their smartness was being put.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is in many ways the most appealing of their eight movies, but it, too, left me with the same nagging doubts that the others did. The opening credits inform us that O Brother is based on Homer’s Odyssey (which the Coens claim not to have read, though I suspect this is one of their little jokes), but the title tips us off to the fact that, as always with the Coens, this is a film about film. O Brother, Where Art Thou? happens to be the name of the “serious” movie that is a key plot element of Preston Sturges’s classic 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels, about a frustrated Hollywood director who longs to turn his back on farce and turn out a high-toned, socially conscious epic. Accordingly, the Coens have retold Homer’s tale in a close approximation of Sturges’s madcap style, transplanting it from ancient Greece to the hookworm belt of Depression-era Mississippi.
Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), the Odysseus of O Brother, is a fast-talking smart aleck who busts out of Parchman Farm chained to Pete and Delmar (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson), a brainless pair of fellow inmates in whose company he embarks on a series of escapades vaguely reminiscent of those recounted by Homer in his epic. In the Odyssey as rewritten by the Coens, Cyclops is a one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman), the Sirens are a trio of sexy gospel singers, and Penelope (Holly Hunter), Ulysses’s long-suffering wife, is on the brink of remarrying a local politician when her husband and his pals show up unexpectedly, triggering a farcical denouement very much in Sturges’s screwball manner.
Most of the reviewers of O Brother, Where Art Thou? have objected to the seeming looseness of the plot. Presumably they have never read a picaresque novel (or seen Sullivan’s Travels), for such is the time-honored way in which O Brother—and the Odyssey itself—is constructed. Ulysses McGill wanders from adventure to adventure with the cheerful self-assurance proper to all picaresque heroes, reveling in the moment and happy to escape with his skin whenever things go wrong, as they usually do. Appropriately enough, George Clooney plays Ulysses the way Robert Preston played Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. Clooney is one of the very few TV stars who has successfully jumped to the big screen, and O Brother, like his earlier Out of Sight and Three Kings, leaves no doubt of his star quality or his infectious sense of fun. He dances lightly atop the elaborately artificial diction of the Coens’ script, turning their ever-exasperating archness into genuine good humor.
So what’s not to like? Plenty, though O Brother, Where Art Thou? is so agreeable that I got about halfway through it before realizing that the Coens were still up to their usual postmodern tricks. As far as I can tell, the reason why they make films about film is because nothing else interests them enough: They are contemptuous of the human race but too apathetic to take it seriously enough to satirize. As I wrote in Crisis apropos of their last movie, The Big Lebowski (“Dead and Loving It,” April 1998)
“Believing in nothing, they find everything funny. This is why their wonderfully stylish movies so rarely engage the emotions (Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing are exceptions), and thus lack the dangerous edge of real satire. Satire occurs when scorn is ignited by passion, a commodity rarely found in the work of the Coens, who prefer Gen-X cool to baby-boom angst; the last thing they’d want is to be caught feeling something intensely….[T]rue postmodernists, they look into the abyss and laugh.”
In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, this emotional detachment is underlined by the film’s true-to-life settings and soundtrack. Considerable trouble has been taken to re-create rural Mississippi circa 1935 (more than a few scenes have the weather-beaten plausibility of old Walker Evans photographs), while the musical score—a cornucopia of blue-grass and gospel songs performed to perfection by such matchless artists as Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, the Fair-field Four, and John Hartford—is a miracle of heartfelt evocation. Yet into this utterly earnest container is poured a script that is all jokey frivolity and winking references to old movies. Such is the Coen brothers’ characteristic approach to filmmaking: They drain all the moral content out of their models, then cackle at the hollowness of the empty shells that are left behind.
I happened to see O Brother, Where Art Thou? at the same time I was reading Lee Server’s Robert Mitchum: “Baby, I Don’t Care” (St. Martin’s Press, 2001), a crassly written but nonetheless interesting biography of a great actor who for years was underrated by critics because so many of his 120-odd films were so bad. Mitchum himself was weirdly apathetic about his career, and his off-screen behavior not infrequently approached the psychopathic. To read about him at length, however, is to realize that he was a man of intelligence and sensitivity who was disillusioned to the point of nihilism. What made him so compelling as an actor was that he was capable of turning this disillusionment into a positive force and putting it on the screen, an ability that made him one of the defining figures of film noir, the Coen brothers’ favorite genre. As Jeff Bailey, the hapless private eye of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, he slouches toward his doom like a young man more than half in love with easeful death. As the perfect Philip Marlowe in Dick Richards’s Farewell, My Lovely, he slogs through the slime of Los Angeles with the exhausted determination of a middle-aged survivor who has seen the worst and lived to regret it.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not without charm or merit, but the intense moral seriousness of these ostensibly “popular” movies, like the genuinely festive foolery of Sullivan’s Travels, makes O Brother’s self-referential humor look like the work of a couple of too-clever teenagers. Certainly it is impossible to imagine Robert Mitchum wandering into one of the Coen brothers’ films, though he might well have been amused by the utter cynicism with which they affect to regard their own profession. Some artists are like that: They hide their inner seriousness behind a mask of flippancy. I used to think that Joel and Ethan Coen were wearing such masks. Maybe they are, but I’m no longer sure there are faces behind them.