This Depression-era comedy opens with a statement that this tale of an escaped convict (George Clooney) who treks across the South with his simple-minded buddies (John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) to get home to his wife is an adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey. But the Coens, ever the tricksters, are pulling your leg. Their "adaptation" is only a goofy pastiche of various elements from the classic poem, rearranged and mixed up with the typical Coen murk.
For better or worse, this is a quintessential Coen brothers movie, much like their equally disappointing The Hudsucker Proxy. All the usual Coen elements are here: crisp cinematography by Roger Deakins, exquisite period detail, pitch-perfect cast, wacky dialogue heavy on the vernacular, mystical characters, moronic characters, cruel jokes, vague allusions to things never explained, and familiar faces from the Coen Kingdom (Turturro, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, etc.). But is there a point? Nope!
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (the title is lifted from the "serious" film Joel McCrea hopes to make in Preston Sturges' 1942 classic Sullivan's Travels) is clever but empty, a meaningless exercise in style. It provides some laughs and some fine performances, but it's generally unsatisfying, especially in the last act. However, I highly praise the Coens' liberal usage of classic American folk songs; there are so many song cues, in fact, that one could almost call this film a musical.
I've gotta hand it to the Coens: across their oeuvre, they have mined the riches of folk music to great effect. (They must have fantastic record collections.) I just hope that, for their next feature, they dispense with the smugness. Whenever they manage to do that, as with Fargo and Blood Simple, they come up with a classic.