You can never rely on the Coen brothers to take things seriously. Even when you think they're being deadly sober, tackling, say, a based-on-fact kidnapping tragedy, it turns out that, hey, they were just pulling your leg and it was all made up, really. Then they make a paean to tenpin bowling, which is also a Raymond Chandler tribute with a '60s acid casualty in the Philip Marlowe role. So, you can't really be too surprised that their latest is an adaptation of Homer's Odyssey, set in '30s Mississippi and starring rising megastar George Clooney.
Yet, while O Brother, Where Art Thou? is predictably unpredictable, it's also surprisingly surprising. If that makes sense. You expect the Coens to be brilliantly bizarre, writing ingeniously rhythmic, offbeat dialogue and framing every shot so meticulously that they've often (and too easily) been accused of favouring style over substance. And O Brother is no exception, delivering skewed humour by the bucketload, plus some gorgeous Deep South scenery with impeccable period detail.
But it also represents something of a departure. The key element here is the music, which plays such a central role that it's just a few numbers short of being a bona fide musical. The Coens have always been adept at evoking a specific era or location, and here they've employed the traditional bluegrass and spiritual tunery of the Deep South's balmy bayous to help weave the atmosphere. The leads croon, yodel and hoedown their way through several tunes, while scenes are set almost entirely around songs, most notably the Sirens episode.
However, the most surprising thing about O Brother is less to do with the Coens' film-making than it is to do with Clooney's performance. Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Charles Durning and John Turturro are reliably solid, while Tim Blake Nelson's vacant gurning is so endearing that you'll wonder why you haven't seen him before.
But Clooney provides a hilarious comic turn, capitalising on his Clark Gable looks with a thin moustache crowning his top lip, while drumming out the dialogue with effortlessly spot-on timing. We see him losing a fight with a pencilneck, shrieking like a girl and even wearing a hairnet. This isn't his typical tough charmer: this is a greasy gab-blabber who mistakes vanity for cunning. We knew we could rely on the Coens not to take things seriously, but it's good to see that Clooney can match them for entertaining absurdity.