In Preston Sturges' classic Sullivan's Travels, the film from which Joel and Ethan Coen derive the name of their latest feature, Joel McCrea's comedy director sets out to commune with victims of the Depression before making his social-problem film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Along the way, McCrea's bleeding heart learns that the downtrodden don't want downer pictures, they just want to be entertained. Know-it-all filmmakers, the Coens regularly invert this lesson to give art-house audiences vacuum-sealed stories about poor folk (Raising Arizona), regional caricatures (Fargo) and lovable lowlifes (The Big Lebowski) whose ways of being in the world are given as inherently entertaining. When such characters escape the bounds of the Coens' ironic clutches, it's usually because the actors portraying them (Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand, Jeff Bridges) have more faith in their personas than the filmmakers can muster. In George Clooney, who leads a ragged trio of escaped convicts (with John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson making up the remainder) on a picaresque sojourn through the Depression-era heartland, the Coens have an actor who takes his self-aggrandizing yokel at face value. Clooney's Everett Ulysses McGill and his cohorts are never more than buffoons offered up for our amusement. And to be fair, O Brother is frequently amusing as a nostalgia-tinted tall tale about three losers who stumble into a series of American myths as they're being born—Robert Johnson, "Babyface" Nelson, Huey Long—and who, with a touch of grace, become smalltime legends themselves. It's also a faux musical, and this may be the Coens' biggest misstep. While their framing of the Ku Klux Klan as a travesty of a Busby Berkeley number is a stroke of biting genius, the authentic, plaintive sounds of the bluegrass and gospel songs that elsewhere punctuate the story only heighten the one-dimensionality of O Brother's central clowns. The songs stand as genuine period expressions of faith and camaraderie in the midst of turmoil. Too bad, then, that every laugh in the film comes with the nagging sense that it's at some undeserving fool's expense.
o brother, here art thou? is now playing at selected theaters.