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O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Three escaped convicts bumble their way through an entertaining screwballversion of ''The Odyssey,'' courtesy of those loopy filmmaking Coen brothers.


In a lighthearted riff on Homer's epic poem set in the Depression-era South, verbose charmer Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) and two dimwitted cronies (John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) break free from a Mississippi chain gang only to face a long series of trials, including a trio of seductive, laundry-washing sirens and a fearsome one-eyed Bible salesman (Homer's Cyclops, of course, creepily portrayed by John Goodman). Unlike the original Ulysses, Everett also must contend with pursuing cops, Southern-friend politicians and the KKK if he is to prevent his less-than-faithful former wife (Holly Hunter) from marrying a rival suitor.


Leading goofs Clooney, Turturro and Nelson gamely get into the ThreeStooges-ish tone of the piece, with Clooney in particular delivering awinking, self-mocking turn that must be his broadest screen performance todate. Nelson (''The Thin Red Line'') is also a riot as a mild-mannered yokelfor whom every slow-moving thought requires visible effort. Disappointingly,Coen veterans Goodman, Hunter and Charles Durning have less to sink theirteeth into than in previous outings with the brothers.


Writer-director Joel and writer-producer Ethan Coen rack up yet another enjoyable romp featuring all of their signature elements - playfully stylized camerawork, offbeat music, colorful characters distanced by dripping irony. Evoking the road comedies of the '30s and '40s, this easygoing comic adventure has an old-fashioned flavor and (for a Coen picture, at least) a relative lack of graphic violence that links it to the brothers' underrated 1994 Frank Capra homage ''The Hudsucker Proxy.'' Amusing as it is, however, ''Brother'' rarely achieves the same hilarious heights as previous Coen laughers such as ''Raising Arizona'' and ''The Big Lebowski.''

Bottom line

It's no ''Fargo,'' but mid-level Coen brothers beats the best work of most Hollywood comedy hacks.