Movie Favorites: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
In the Coens’ first two decades of filmmaking, they created one terrific movie after another—but their gleeful playing around with genre tropes, ironic homages to film history and formal exercises, while sometimes exhilarating (viz. the Danny Boy shootout in Miller’s Crossing), tended to leave their work just shy of greatness. There was a small distance there, which critics said was created by the overly cerebral, self-satisfied filmmaking of brilliant mimics, if not quite great artists.
On the one hand, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is susceptible to many of the same charges. On the other hand, there is much that is transcendent here—a screwball goof on Preston Sturges, prisoner comedies, musicals, gangster Americana and the Old South turns out to be a near perfect cover for a brilliant meditation on and summation of the sweeping cultural shifts of the 20th Century, particularly mass media and other technology, and a sharp critique of nostalgia and national mythologies.
In these ways the film far surpasses its own limitations and shortcuts and points the way to the more personal masterpieces the Coens would create in the coming years—from No Country for Old Men, to A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis.