A grand odyssey

John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson and George Clooney are The Soggy Bottom Boys, which explains the looks on their faces.

John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson and George Clooney are The Soggy Bottom Boys, which explains the looks on their faces.

Rated 5.0

It’s a great thing to watch an actor who loves his job.

The story has it that George Clooney didn’t even read the script for O Brother, Where Art Thou? before taking his role as Everett Ulysses McGill; he heard it was a Coen Brothers’ film and took the job on the spot. Clooney continues to be one of the smartest actors in Hollywood.

Based on Homer’s The Odyssey and set in Depression-era Mississippi, this is far and away the most beautiful-looking film of the year. The Coens have never come up short with the visuals, and the cinematography by Roger Deakins provides one major eye massage. For Coen-heads, go ahead and rank this one alongside Miller’s Crossing as their most eye-catching films.

Three career criminals (Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) escape from a chain gang in search of buried treasure (Clooney’s McGill claims to have stashed his loot from an armored car heist). After picking up a hitchhiker capable of providing decent guitar accompaniment and dubbing themselves The Soggy Bottom Boys, they cut an impromptu version of the standard “Man of Constant Sorrow,” featuring film history’s greatest lip synch.

I’m not kidding. George Clooney is film history’s all-time greatest lip-syncher. Personally, I get all bummed out when I learn that an actor’s singing voice is not his own. Not the case with Clooney, who doesn’t lip-synch so much as channel the voice on the soundtrack. What he does is the very definition of “selling a song.” Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn had nothing on this guy’s voice-stealing technique.

Along the journey, fun parallels to The Odyssey—and even The Wizard of Oz—abound. Coen regular John Goodman shows up as the Cyclops (one-eyed Bible salesman Big Dan McTeague), participating in a fight scene that pays homage to the Coens’ own Raising Arizona. The Sirens appear as three crooning women doing their wash in a river, and the homage to Oz kicks in during a striking KKK rally. The KKK actually performs a grand-scale dance number in this film, the Coens being one of the few film-making teams capable of pulling something like that off.

Clooney seems overjoyed to be a part of the Coen universe and proves himself a stellar comic actor. With a little bit of Clark Gable’s charm and a whole lotta hair pomade, he fashions a character among the year’s most memorable, delivering a comic performance that is arguably the year’s best. No actor this year conveyed half the concentration of joy shooting off Clooney’s every moment in this movie, and it’s infectious. Considering his past work, which features some fine performances, it’s still a surprise to see Clooney master such an animated character.

As his cohorts, Turturro, and especially Nelson, are constant pleasures to watch. Nelson is in possession of a great movie face reminiscent of Stan Laurel, and also performs a nice rendition of “In the Jailhouse Now” (unlike Clooney, he actually sings) during The Soggy Bottom Boys’ surprise live gig toward the end of the picture. It is during this live gig, with the boys decked out in ZZ Top beards, that Turturro and Clooney provide the year’s best dance moves. When these boys start to sway with the song, it’s a genuine smile-inducing moment.

The year’s best comic performance from Clooney, the year’s best visuals and some of the year’s finest music, and it isn’t even the Coens’ greatest film (I still haven’t decided if their best is Fargo or Barton Fink). It’s just another major achievement from a duo that can do no wrong at the movies. A filmgoer’s paradise.