American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The opening titles inform us that the Coen Brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is based on Homer's The Odyssey . The Coens claimed their "Fargo" was based on a true story, but later confided it wasn't; this time they confess they haven't actually read The Odyssey . Still, they've absorbed the spirit. Like its inspiration, this movie is one darn thing after another.
The film is a Homeric journey through Mississippi during the Depression--or rather, through all of the images of that time and place that have been trickling down through pop culture ever since. There are even walk-ons for characters inspired by Babyface Nelson and the blues singer Robert Johnson, who speaks of a crossroads soul-selling rendezvous with the devil.
Bluegrass music is at the heart of the film, as it was of "Bonnie and Clyde," and there are images of chain gangs, sharecropper cottages, cotton fields, populist politicians, river baptisms, hobos on freight trains, patent medicines, 25-watt radio stations and Klan rallies. The movie's title is lifted from Preston Sturges' 1941 comedy "Sullivan's Travels" (it was the uplifting movie the hero wanted to make to redeem himself), and from Homer we get a Cyclops, sirens bathing on rocks, a hero named Ulysses, and his wife Penny, which is no doubt short for Penelope.
If these elements don't exactly add up, maybe they're not intended to. Homer's epic grew out of the tales of many storytellers who went before; their episodes were timed and intended for a night's recitation. Quite possibly no one before Homer saw the developing work as a whole. In the same spirit, "O Brother" contains sequences that are wonderful in themselves--lovely short films--but the movie never really shapes itself into a whole.