O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a title with instant resonance for anyone with a sense of film history: it's the name of the film that Joel McCrea's director wants to make in Sullivan's Travels, a serious movie about man's inhumanity to man. After a stretch on a southern chain gang, he realizes that the world needs good comedy instead.Drenched in perfect period music -- from the Carter Family's Keep On The Sunnyside and Jimmie Rodgers' In The Jailhouse Now to Skip James's Hard Time Killing Floor Blues -- and roaming around the endless flatness of the Mississippi Delta, O Brother gives us a trio of escaped convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) in search of a buried treasure and trying to get Clooney back to his wife, Penny, before she can remarry. Yes, it's the Odyssey, complete with Sirens and John Goodman as the Cyclops.
The Coens share Preston Sturges's fondness for actors with an appetite for baroque detail. Supporting actors in their movies get the same two minutes they'd get in anybody else's, but they get to shine: Stephen Root's demented blind radio station owner, singer Gillian Welch as a disappointed customer in the general store, the apoplectic fury of John McConnell's five seconds as the manager of the Woolworth's.
One can accuse the Coens of making films that are elaborate private jokes. On the other hand, you've got to admire a movie that stages a Ku Klux Klan lynching as a musical number that might have been choreographed by Busby Berkeley for the Southern Mississippi University marching band.