From Blood Simple to Barton Fink to Fargo and The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen have been masters of eccentric storytelling and their latest -- O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- is no exception.
Based on Homer's Odyssey, no less, it follows the bizarrely ragtag adventures of three escaped convicts who fled a Depression-era Mississippi chain gang. The end of their particular rainbow is presumed to be a fortune hidden by Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) on land scheduled to be flooded for a hydroelectric project, although in truth the real prize turns out to be priceless.
Along the way they encounter a blind prophet who promises them riches beyond their dreams, though not what they had bargained for; a white-robed choir being baptized in a river, a backstabbing cousin, a burning barn, a mysterious lawman (Daniel Von Bargen, once of Trinity Rep) who wears sunglasses even at night, a thieving Bible salesman, a blind record producer who mistakes them for a singing group and turns them into the Soggy Bottom Boys, three "sirens" singing in the river, a cross-burning Ku Klux Klan lynching rally that's choreographed like a Busby Berkeley number, an opportnistic governor desperate not to lose the upcoming election to his flamboyant opponent who travels with a midget, and tommy-gun-blasting bank robber George ("Don't call me Baby Face!") Nelson.
It's wild and zany and imaginative and, unfortunately, never quite as funny as the Coens think it is. As with most of their films, the Coens pile on unusual situations and oddball characters with screwy names -- Vernon T. Waldrip and Wash Hogwallop here. Although the film seems punctuated by quirky twists of fate, it's all very contrived and the script's seams inevitably show. On the other hand, O Brother, Where Art Thou? never...