A bit of a trifle compared to more exactingly crafted Coen Brothers films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is enjoyable, but lacks the odd specificities that make a Coen film really shine. What we get instead is possibly the broadest film the brothers have made (leaving aside easily bottom-tier Coen Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers), populated with a stable of hayseed caricatures.
The film is still plenty fun thanks to the way leads George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson embrace their cartoonish characters, but there’s a good reason the film’s T-Bone Burnett-curated soundtrack easily outpaced the film in terms of popularity. It’s the collection of old-timey music, not the Coens’ so-so script that’s responsible for much of the film’s unique character.
The film is a loose retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, set in depression-era Deep South where a trio of chain-gang prisoners have just escaped. Led by the poised gentility of Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney), he and his cohorts Pete (Turturro) and Delmar (Nelson) set out in search of the treasure he buried.
Along the way, the group will meet a bluesman who sold his soul to the devil (Chris Thomas King), convince a blind radio station manager (Stephen Root) to let them record a single, get beat up a gluttonous Bible salesman (John Goodman), and sway the gubernatorial election of Mississippi. There may also be an ex-wife (Holly Hunter) being pursued by a suitor that Everett is none too pleased about.
The film’s episodic nature both works to its advantage and never allows it to cohere into anything all that significant. Some of the discrete moments work better than others, and the best are often punctuated with some of the soundtrack’s best recordings, like the updated rendition of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and the sultry “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” by Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, and Emmylou Harris.
While it’s fun watching Clooney clown around (and this might be his best comic performance besides the one in Batman & Robin) and Nelson transforms into a supreme dimwit quite hilariously, O Brother lacks the kind of comic impact that the Coens can achieve when they introduce more dark idiosyncrasies to the mix.
The Blu-ray Disc
Attention, Universal: This is what a Roger Deakins-lensed, Coen Brothers-directed film should look like on Blu-ray. After the disappointing DNR mess of The Big Lebowski, this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer of O Brother, Where Art Thou is especially staggering. Disney doesn’t upgrade many non-animation catalog titles, but they’ve got someone over there who knows what they’re doing. This transfer is stunning from top to bottom, with a detail-rich sharpness that’s apparent from the first frames on. The film’s sepia-tinted digital color correction looks incredible here, with rich, dusty browns that look texturally film-like and not digitally manipulated. At the same time, lush greens and the blue sky pop from the image, and while colors are generally destaurated, there’s a vibrancy to them all the same. This marks a massive improvement over the old DVD release.
Similarly, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a winner, giving perfect clarity and depth to the film’s songs along with a nice sense of ambience and crystal clear dialogue in the fronts.
Nothing new on the extras front, with the paltry DVD features ported over in standard definition. A brief making-of features interviews with most of the principals, but barely qualifies as cursory. A storyboard-to-scene comparison is offered for two scenes — the KKK rally and the climactic flood. A music video for “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” is also included, as is the film’s theatrical trailer.
The Bottom Line
Even for those not too keen on the film, this is an extremely impressive high-def upgrade, and it makes the journey all the more enjoyable.