O Brother, Where Art Thou? is loosely based on Homer's Odyssey. I say loosely because Joel and Ethan Coen never read it before they wrote their screenplay.It's a road movie, set in the American deep south. The backdrop is the 1930s Depression, and two competing mayoral election campaigns. George Clooney (complete with Clark Gable moustache), John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson escape their chain gang for a series of eccentric encounters - some of which (a one-eyed man) are more Homeric than others (a Ku Klux Klan lynching). The film is brimming with bluesgrass music of the period and has a distinctive parched sepia look, thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins.
O Brother is peopled by broad Southern types, rather than characters, but Clooney's charisma invests his Everett Ulysses McGill with more personality than his dimwitted sidekicks (Turturro spends so much time scowling it's a relief when he makes a premature departure). Some of the big set-pieces are well-executed and charming, especially towards the end, but it takes a long time to reach them. And little diversion is provided along the way, unless you connect with the goofy pratfalls and slapstick humour (you can probably guess I didn't).I felt alienated by this film. It's like hearing a joke about people you don't know; you can understand the punchline without fully appreciating it. I suspect the film contains other references to old films, besides the title (O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the name of the idealistic film project in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels), which were lost on me.