Imagine a Three Stooges episode where the stooges act out The Odyssey--to an authentic bluegrass soundtrack. As improbable as that might sound, it is exactly the recipe for the amazing movie O Brother Where Art Thou. You will laugh at the silly stupidity of it all, marvel at the intellectual jokes, admire the film-making techniques, and cry with real emotion at the epic heartbreak of it all.
Unlike the movie Troy, O Brother does not pretend to be a retelling of Homer. However, there are numerous parallels and remakings. Some of the references are obvious, but many are not. If you've just read The Odyssey, you'll appreciate all that playfulness and cleverness all the more.
George Clooney plays Ulysses Everett McGill, a man who escapes from a chain gang with two of his fellow inmates. He is definitely the clever one of the three, and he leads them through episodic adventures and tribulations roughly parallel to what Odysseus experiences. And like Odysseus, Everett seeks to go home to his wife and offspring. In the film, "Penny" is played brilliantly by Holly Hunter.
In some of the episodes, film characters carry echoes of several storylines from the book. For example, the women who sing so beautifully that the men are pulled off the path are the Sirens--but also reflect Circe, Calypso, and even Nausicaa doing her laundry.
Occasionally I found myself trying to force the scenes to fit together--but that is just not the way this movie works. Nods to Homer are everywhere, but this is in no way just a modernization of the Odyssey. Everything from the Cyclops to Helios' cattle appear, but not always in their right places or plot-lines. I had to let myself sit back and enjoy the brilliant quirkiness.
Everett is cunning and well-spoken, just as Odysseus is. The two characters also share a tremendous pride or vanity. Everett's vanity is shown through his special concern about how his hair looks and his great love of Dapper Dan hair pomade. Although his vanity is played for laughs through almost the entire movie, the picture changes at the end and left me with a lump in my throat. I won't say more, but if any of you know what I'm talking about, I'd love to hear what you thought.
My very favorite scene: When the Odysseus character yells at his young daughters, "I am the only Daddy you got! I am the damn pater familias!" in his intense Deep South accent.
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Of course the music is one of the best parts about the movie. Traditional music threads throughout--as an integral part of the movie rather than as background. Perhaps the highlight is when the three jailbreaks form the Soggy Bottom Boys and record a song together: "Man of Constant Sorrow":
Note: The name Odysseus can be translated as "the hated man" or "troubled man" or "the man who brings and receives pain"--that is, "the man of constant sorrow."
And here is an audio of the immortal Ralph Stanley singing the same traditional song: