Montreal Film Journal


I'll be darned. The Coen brothers, who many cinéphiles (myself included) like to call the most exciting working American filmmakers, have just made a bad movie. Not just bad, boring too. Sure, it feels like a Coen flick, it's as well directed as their previous films... Yet it's still boring as a dog's ass.

The movie is a really odd endeavor, sort of a road movie/musical/screwball comedy. It's set in the 30s, or at least in the "movie 30s". It's as if Joel and Ethan Coen had decided to write a film around all the early century stereotypes they could think of. So you got these three chain-gang convicts who escape while breaking rock on the side of the road. They be looking for treasure, now, such is the goal of their journey through rural Mississippi. Their odyssey, you might say. For, as we're told in the opening credits, the film is supposedly based on Homer's "The Odyssey", an epic Greek poem about an army man's long journey back to his home and his wife. This is obviously just some in-joke from the Coens, like the title (a reference to the Preston Sturges classic "Sullivan's Travels"), who have admitted they haven't even read the classic tale. All they did is take the general idea of a guy and his pals trying to go back home getting into various adventures.

So you got this nouveau genre Ulysses (George Clooney), on the lam with fellow escapees Pete (Coen regular John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson). There's very little plot, except that they're going back to Ulysses' hometown to dig up the loot he hid before he went to jail and cops are after them. What you get is a series of mostly pointless unconnected sequences (SPOILERS AHEAD): They steal a chicken. They sleep in a barn. There's a fire. They meet a black teenager with a guitar who (like Robert Johnson if legend is true) has sold his soul to the Devil on a crossroads to become a gifted guitarist. They cut a bluegrass record as the Soggy Bottom Boys in a blind man's studio for 10 bucks a piece (the record will become a huge hit, unbeknown to them). They rob a bank with a maniaco-depressive, tommy gun waving gangster. They steal a pie. They are seduced by sirens doing their laundry in the river. They meet sort of a cyclops, actually a Bible salesman with an eye-patch (John Goodman). They get thrown out of a Woolsworth. They interrupt a song-dance-and-lynching Ku Klux Klan rally. They perform at an electoral party for the Governor. They get flooded. Ulysses finally reunites with his wife (Holly Hunter) and 7 daughters, sort of. The End (END OF SPOILERS, TOO).

So basically, the movie is just a bunch of little events that don't add up to anything. If at least said events were entertaining, we might have something here, but they're not. There's maybe three laughs in the film, a handful of smiles. That's it. The large majority of the film is nearly unwatchable. I saw the film with my roommate, she left after 15 minutes and I don't blame her. The movie is horrible! I don't get it. The Coen brothers seem to be putting as much energy as usual. The movie looks gorgeous, with a very interesting visual look (using sort of a golden, faded film stock, like old photographs), it has a wonderful soundtrack filled with nice old time country and blues tunes, the cast is pretty good, Clooney in particular, the script is full of overwritten dialogue and quirky situations which could have been fun... This should be a really good, really enjoyable movie, but it's not. Not at all. In fact, what this might be is the best crafted worst movie I ever saw.