While hardly based on the traditional musical model, this film still easily ranks among the best musical movies of the decade. It’s a brilliantly written, hilarious folk comedy, modeled after a modern-day retelling of The Odyssey and based on sound old-fashioned values of adventure and character comedy. It showcases thrilling comic and dramatic climaxes throughout the runtime, yet never loses site of the humanity of its characters.
It features a strong and colorful cast headed up by George Clooney in what is possibly the best role of his career. Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro give amusing and touchingly honest performances as his two companions, and John Goodman and Charles Durning are gloriously hammy in scene-stealing supporting roles.
The musical portions are equally satisfying, consisting largely of classic folk standards (and a few originals in the same vein) performed with charm and gusto by the cast and several modern-day singers in the style, including the exquisite-voiced Alison Krauss, who receives the film’s most memorable numbers, the haunting spiritual “Down In the River To Pray” and the siren-song trio “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby”.
Also of note is a strikingly raw and bluesy version of “Man of Constant Sorrow”, and a genuinely unnerving rendition of “O Death” by Ralph Stanley, both of which netted Grammies. This is a new kind of musical film never before seen, and given how justly well-received and successful it is, I think it’s a shame it didn’t inspire more imitators.