By Brooke Dupree (Myrtle Beach, SC)
Anyone who has read Homer’s Odyssey knows that Odysseus’s journey is wracked with obstacles. Odysseus’s internal battle with his ego and his desire to go home to his family is the inspiration for the Coen Brothers successful portrayal of the journey of Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), and his two fellow escaped convicts in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Everett’s obsession with his hair and his know-it-all tendencies lead he and his two dimwitted jail mates, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) as they search for a secret treasure through the deep south during the Great Depression. Just like in The Odyssey, they come across their fair share of hurdles, the ultimate of which being the Lawman, hot on their trail, which leads the audience through their ridiculous pitfalls, narrowly escaping the law, accompanying bank robbers, and losing one of their friends to the Sirens.
There are two ways one could view this film and be either disappointed or delighted. If the audience is expecting to follow a more modern story that closely relates to The Odyssey, she will be disappointed since the film is very loosely based on Homer’s classic poem. However, if the expectation is to just find a story about three escaped convicts searching for treasure, then she will see some of the connections to The Odyssey, but appreciate the turn of events as its own story, somewhat from The Odyssey’s characters and plot line. The obvious liberty that the Coen brothers took with depicting Homer’s Odyssey does not veer completely off base; instead they offer the basic nuts and bolts of some of its most epic characters and scenes. Cyclops makes an appearance as a smooth-talking Bible salesman, played by John Goodman, and the Siren scene, is sexy and mesmerizing, as it should be.
Since the Coen brothers left some of the most ultimate parts of the Odyssey in the film, we are able to make the connection, but view each scene as its own separate contribution to the journey of Everett himself. Some of the most important characters from Homer’s poem are missing, however, one of them especially, the character of Telemachus. Although we don’t necessarily need his character to tell the whole story, his absence is felt by the necessary plot moving specifically towards Odysseus’s journey, which is, in part, to get home to his son and wife, and helps to portray the time lost in Odysseus’s absence. Without his presence in the movie, the audience may lose this detrimental part to the story. We are also missing the overall stakes.
Throughout the film, the connection between Everett and his ultimate goal is lost. This could be because the focus on the possibility of losing his wife and daughters to another man (the suitors) is not very well established as the most important motive for Everett’s escape from prison. The way Southerners are portrayed is also a bit problematic, in my opinion. Some of the characters are seen as being redneck hicks, dumb, and foolish. Although this portrayal is mostly done as a backwards humor, I think it is a mis-portrayal, since, the Coen brothers have admitted (per other film critiques) that they have never even been to Mississippi. That being said, I find it a little jarring that the South is chosen as a background to represent the foolishness and stupidity of some of The Odyssey’s most famous players. I am biased, however, as I have lived in the south my entire life.
I think O Brother, where Art Thou? was an attempt by the Coen brothers to remain true to the story of Odysseus’s journey, but not stick to it as a form of storytelling. I believe it is successful as its own story, not as it relates to The Odyssey, but as it stands alone by itself. In other words, the characters and the scenes can be considered something completely different than The Odyssey, as more of a journey to “get the girl” and find religion, since from the beginning, Everett argues with his cohorts about religious validity. And speaking of religion, the film seems to be using religion, or Everett’s question of it, as a way to question the difference between right and wrong and the basic human struggle to stay on the right path, resist temptation. As Everett continues his quest to get home, he begins to “suffer” and asks God for mercy.
I would compare this movie to a “road trip” film such as Smokey and the Bandit, a rendition of which is complete with southern sass and culture, bluegrass and country singing, and travelers who are constantly evading the law, without a heavy influence on the ultimate objective of the journey itself. O Brother, Where Art Thou? may not be lacking in humor and good ole southern religion, but its attempt to stay true to the Original Odyssey is, in effect, not going to make it home.