The Coen brothers splice Homer's Odyssey with Preston Sturges and Depression era America and come up with a road movie-cum-screwball comedy.
Like most Coen movies, it isn't quite the way they used to make them, but is deeply in love not just with the films of the past, but all of popular culture, from product packaging (principally Dapper Dan hair pomade) through period pop music to modes of dress and politics. Though its downhome numbers are states away from the glamour of vintage Hollywood, this even manages to be the nearest thing to a real feelgood musical the movies have pulled off in years.
While earlier Coen movies pay homage to Dashiell Hammett (Blood Simple, 1983), William Faulkner (Barton Fink, 1991) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Lebowski, 1998), the touchstone here is short story-writer and fabulist Howard Waldrop (who has a character named after him). In his novel, A Dozen Tough Jobs, Waldrop retold the story of Hercules in the rural South in the 1920s. Here, the Coens use the Waldropian approach by replaying the story of Ulysses' long journey home from the Trojan Wars to Ithaca against the backdrop of Depression-era Mississippi.
Our heroes are: Ulysses Everett McGill, a fast-talking, fastidious wiseguy who says he's after treasure but really wants to get back together with his wife, Penny, and brood of daughters; Delmar, a slow-witted tag-along who wants to buy back the family farm from the bank; and Pete, a tearaway with ambitions to be a maitre d'. On their trail is a typical Coen demon villain, posse-leader Cooley (Daniel Von Bargen), and in the background is an electoral contest between the genially corrupt incumbent Governor, Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning), and the reform-minded Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall). Along the way, they fall in with Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) - a bluesman who has swapped his soul for musical talent, which leads the runaways into a profitable detour as a recording sensation - and manic depressive gunman George Nelson, who hates cows as much as cops.
Confidently cinematic in classical and modern terms, layered with subtleties but also a straight-ahead, crowd-pleasing comedy, with more witty lines and bits of visual imagination than a dozen regular movies, O Brother is where thou shouldst be.
With their annual output now as eagerly anticipated as that of Woody Allen, the Coen brothers are cinema's most precious gift: unbending auteurs and cultural magpies, who find poetry in tins of hair-wax and livestock marooned on rooftops. Cherish them.