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Oh Brother, Where Is Thy Audience?

  • Lisa Tedder Music Channel Critic
  • Published Feb 01, 2001
Oh Brother, Where Is Thy Audience?

Ebert & Roeper gave two thumbs down to the highly underrated Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? So did the box office numbers, with most of the ticket sales (including mine, the first time) going to people who arrived at the theater too late to get into Traffic or Save the Last Dance. Who am I to argue with not only the most revered movie critics of our time but also the less discriminating masses of moviegoers?

Despite the opposition, I will attempt the argument.

I admit I first saw Oh Brother unintentionally. But I loved it. I've seen it twice, I'm going to see it again if I can convince anyone to go with me, and I'll be the only person in line to buy it the day the video is released. (Assuming, of course, that they do release it to video.) Apparently I'm alone in my fanaticism. But maybe that's a mark of my good taste. Isn't art supposed to be ahead of its time? Maybe I'm just the only one smart enough to appreciate it.

So why didn't anyone else like this movie? Ebert & Roeper criticized the lack of plot, claiming that it's just a series of disconnected events. The movie refuses to follow a clear storyline, and the characters are passive recipients rather than protagonists who create the events. This accusation is absolutely true. But that's half the point of the movie - the characters are helpless players in a drama beyond their control. Events are determined by something we, the audience, never quite understand: fate, or God, or that mysterious and sinister sheriff in dark sunglasses. We aren't supposed to know. Neither are they. Hasn't anybody else ever read Waiting for Godot? Maybe I am the only remaining fan of absurdist theater, where the plot is supposed to be a series of strange events connected by character rather than cause and effect. But if absurdism is so out of style, would someone please explain to me the success of Seinfeld?

The philosophy underlying Oh Brother, however, goes deeper than mere absurdism into a reflection on death, life, fate and salvation. There are powerful spiritual undertones, culminating in a miraculous finale of almost mythic proportions. I don't want to spoil it for the (undoubtably numerous) readers who haven't seen it yet, but the ending is as satisfying - and as startling - as a fairy tale.

Probably by now, most of my less intellectual (by which I mean nerdy) readers are vowing never to see this movie. But before you make up your mind in disgust, let me tell you the real reason I enjoyed it so much: it's as quotable as Monty Python. George Clooney's character has a verbose script that's as funny and witty as the best of Holy Grail. Of course I haven't watched Oh Brother repeatedly because I'm fascinated by the philosophical questions. I just wanted to have something unexpectedly clever to say the next time someone snaps at me - something like, "The personal rancor implicit in that remark I do not intend to dignify with comment." Don't try to convince me the movie is unrealistic because a small-town penitentiary escapee would never use such vocabulary (or such backward grammatical structure). Comedy is not realism. Ancient Celts would never have discussed the air-speed velocity of swallows, either; the incongruity is exactly what makes it funny.

So maybe Oh Brother isn't for everybody. But if you enjoy the kind of verbal wit employed by masters like Monty Python and Shakespeare, or if you appreciate a movie that demands a little more mental exertion than Sleepless in Seattle, pay your intellect a compliment. Find out if you (like me) are nerdy enough to appreciate it.

By Lisa Tedder

Read what reviewer Michael Elliot had to say about Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?