Only Joel and Ethan Coen, the fraternal director and producer team behind art-house hits such as The Big Lebowski and Fargo and masters of quirky and ultra-stylish genre subversion, would dare nick the plot line of Homer's Odyssey for a comic picaresque saga about three cons on the run in 1930s Mississippi. Our wandering hero in this case is one Ulysses Everett McGill, a slick-tongued wise guy with a thing about hair pomade (George Clooney, blithely sending up his own dapper image) who talks his chain-gang buddies (Coen-movie regular John Turturro and newcomer Tim Blake Nelson) into lighting out after some buried loot he claims to know of. En route they come up against a prophetic blind man on a railroad truck, a burly, one-eyed baddie (the ever-magnificent John Goodman), a trio of sexy singing ladies, a blues guitarist who's sold his soul to the devil, a brace of crooked politicos on the stump, a manic-depressive bank robber, and--well, you get the idea. Into this, their most relaxed film yet, the Coens have tossed a beguiling ragbag of inconsequential situations, a wealth of looping, left-field dialogue, and a whole stash of gags both verbal and visual. O Brother (the title's lifted from Preston Sturges's classic 1941 comedy Sullivan's Travels) is furthermore graced with glowing, burnished photography from Roger Deakins and a masterly soundtrack from T-Bone Burnett that pays loving homage to American '30s folk styles--blues, gospel, bluegrass, jazz, and more. And just to prove that the brothers haven't lost their knack for bad-taste humor, we get a Ku Klux Klan rally choreographed like a cross between a Nuremberg rally and a Busby Berkeley musical. --Philip Kemp
The cast includes George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Ray McKinnon and Michael Badalucco.