& & by Ed Symkus & & & &
There should always be a celebration when a new film from the Coen brothers is released. Sure, there's been a blip or two on their screen, such as when they got a little too serious and not outrageous enough (or perhaps it was the other way around) with Barton Fink. But for the most part, they've provided plenty to both laugh and cringe about, starting with Blood Simple and going right up to The Big Lebowski.
Longtime fans and newcomers alike should have no problem recognizing this new one as a regular crowd pleaser, partly because of the story's familiarity -- much of it is rooted in Homer's The Odyssey -- and partly because every actor involved gives his or her all. George Clooney, in particular, has reinvented himself onscreen, providing the light touch that's been missing from his more righteous and/or serious roles. The action is picked up as three convicts on a Southern chain gang in 1930s' Mississippi succeed in a break. There's the well-spoken, almost always well-coifed Everett (Clooney), the temperamental Pete (John Turturro) and the goofy Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), all still chained together, running for their freedom, for their lives, yet doing so in the comic manner that the film establishes early on and has no trouble keeping to. They're also, according to Everett, on a mission, a race against time to find a "treasure" that he's buried in a location that's about to be flooded by the county.
Have we picked up on that Odyssey business yet? If not, just wait; the film features, just as Homer featured, among other things, a Cyclops (actually John Goodman wearing a patch on one eye), a trio of beautiful sirens (accompanied on the fabulous soundtrack by "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby," angelically sung by Emmylou Harris, Alison Kraus and Gillian Welch), and an instance of one character being turned into an animal (no further information will be revealed here about that).
The actual story doesn't really have anything specifically to do with The Odyssey. Still, it's the best updating and changing around of a classic picaresque tale since Lindsay Anderson and company took Voltaire's Candide and made it into O Lucky Man! One of the stranger bits that the film boasts is a massive outdoor nighttime scene of Ku Klux Klanners getting ready to do some seriously nasty business that looks and sounds remarkably like one of the set pieces of hordes of natives getting ready to perform a sacrifice in the original King Kong.
On the serious side of things, these three men on the run, eventually freed from their chains but still sticking together, get around to talking to each other about what they'll do after finding and splitting their fortune. Pete wants to settle down and open a restaurant. Delmar wants to buy back the farm his family lost. Everett, the trio's unofficial leader, says he has no plan. Without giving anything away, let it be known that one of them is lying, and it's pretty easy, before long, to figure out who.
It doesn't really matter, though, because on the long road to finding out, filled to the brim with gorgeous photography (by Coens' regular Roger Deakins) and a gaggle of great old-timey music ("I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" gets quite a workout), it's going to be hard for any viewer to keep their mind on any one thing simply because so much is going on. John Goodman's fast-talking Big Dan Teague is one scary fellow; Charles Durning's loudmouthed Governor Pappy O'Daniel is an amazing sight, especially the way he wears his pants, possibly higher up than anyone else in any movie; and Michael Badalucco's excitable Baby Face Nelson is the best Baby Face Nelson onscreen since Richard Dreyfuss maniacally played him in Dillinger.
This is a solidly entertaining comedy from the opening frame to the moment Clooney and his pals launch into song as the made-up-on-the-spot Soggy Mountain Boys to the bizarre plot twists near the end. Actually, the moment Soggy Mountain Boy Everett steps up to a can microphone at a radio station might be a great one, but when his cohorts smoothly sidle up to contribute their answering vocals, well, that's a scene to remember this movie by. For the record, Nelson is really singing; Turturro and Clooney are not.