December 23, 2000 [O Brother, Where Art Thou?]

If Jeff Lebowski is “the laziest man in Los Angle-ese county, which puts him in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide,” then Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is his not-so-evil twin, a man in love with the sound of his own voice, the smell of his Dapper Dan, and his imagined ability to outsmart everyone.  Watching the riverside baptisms, he notes, “Hard times sure flush the chumps”--and yet he sinks to his knees and asks God to, as Emo Phillips noted a few years ago, “change the laws of the universe to suit my needs.” 

But it doesn’t matter who flooded the valley--and it doesn’t matter whether those Sy-reens could love up anybody and turn them into horny-toads, or even whether there’s any treasure to seek or not to seek: In the end, McGill reveals there is something he loves more than himself: his wife and children, for whom he seeks his bona fides.  So whether he’s Odysseus or simply a sap who thinks he’s as good-looking as George Clooney, McGill manages, like so many Coen heroes before him, to fall into a dream despite his objections, a place as full of cockeyed promise as “H.I.”’s Utah in Raising Arizona or the peppy loyalty of Norville’s Muncie Girl in The Hudsucker Proxy--even Marge Gunderson’s imaginary Fargo. 

The big difference, of course, is all the singing: O Brother, Where Art Thou?  rescues the musical, almost makes me wish everyone would stop talking and break out into another song--except of course when they do talk it’s all eminently quotable, Coen-speak whose mock-Epic proclamations finally make sense here in this backwoods Odyssey, where the Hero’s Hair needs constant attention and danger lurks in Woolworth’s.

I’ve stopped caring whether the Coens are making movies or movies-about-movies.  This picture shows me they’re doing both--or better yet: post-modernizing irony so thoroughly it’s no longer irony, just charm and wit and great tunes, plus a happy ending.


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