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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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O Brother, Where Art Thou?
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I didn't expect much out of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and maybe that's the best way to approach a Coen brothers film, because I had quite a good time. After The Big Lebowski, I feared that the Coens, with an Oscar for Fargo under their belts, had decided to let their admirably peculiar imaginations run wild; somebody needed to rein that thing in. But O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which takes its title from the salute-to-the-common-man epic that a Hollywood director tries to make in the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan's Travels, shows the Coens near the top of their form, poking fun at their characters' pretentiousness and lack thereof. And at their own pretentiousness and lack thereof. And at ours.

Set in Mississippi during the '30s, the movie's really set in "Mississippi during the '30s," an existing-only-in-quotes mythic realm that the Coens have pieced together from the high and low culture of the time. William Faulkner's in the air. So is Flannery O'Connor. And Walker Evans. And Robert Johnson. And the Three Stooges. And The Wizard of Oz. And I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. And the funny pages--especially the funny pages. Not since L'il Abner ran barefoot through the earthly paradise of Dogpatch have yokels been played for so many laughs. The movie opens by informing us that it's "based on The Odyssey by Homer." How the Coens kept themselves from adding "and Jethro" is beyond me.

Looking Clark Gable handsome, George Clooney is Ulysses Everett McGill, an escaped con who only wants two things in life: 1) to be reunited with his estranged wife Penny (Holly Hunter) and 2) to keep his "coiffure" in tip-top shape using Dapper Dan hair pomade. A simple life. Even so, the role's a bit of a stretch for Clooney, who can't seem to figure out how to play smart and dumb at the same time. We do appreciate the effort, however. And in the meantime, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson are nailing to the wall Ulysses' fellow escaped cons, whom he describes, quite accurately, as "dumber than a bag of hammers." We've seen poor dirt farmers before, of course, but these two are suuuu-eeee generis.

And so is the movie, I'd have to say, even though everything in it seems to have come from somewhere else. (A production number involving the KKK harks back to Mel Brooks' infamous "Springtime for Hitler.") Then again, what other movie has ever featured gopher-on-a-stick? The Coens have been accused of condescending to these single-digit hayseeds. All I can say in their defense is, Duh.

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