• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #71: Ulysses Everett McGill


"Well, ain't this place a geographic oddity! Two weeks from everywhere!"

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a fun film. Loosely based on Homer's Odyssey, it's a journey narrative set in Depression-era Mississippi and populated by the colorful menagerie of characters usual to movies by the Coen brothers. The bemused Odysseus is the aptly-named Ulysses Everett McGill, a small-time grifter who breaks out of jail with two questionably competent accomplices and sets about the long sojourn back to his wife Penny (from Odysseus' own Penelope). Naturally, obstacles and misadventures intervene, and the road home is long, often bizarre, and frequently funny.

Clooney plays McGill with a man-ahead-of-his-time modern sensibility, a resourceful visionary victimized by circumstances and a benighted locale too small for his plans. And yet McGill finds his plans inadequate or frustrated by his own failings, those of his companions, or dumb luck. The result is a series of tight spots that tests his resolve and ingenuity. He's not a particularly greedy con man, all he really wants is the right pomade (a Dapper Dan man - no Fop) and restoration as the head of his household of daughters (the "paterfamilias"), a position Penny is unlikely ever to relinquish.

The music, the cutting commentary on the corrupt and inept politics of the day, and the roster of strange souls make O Brother a pleasure. Clooney's charisma and earnest striving as McGill make it a classic. From a personal impact standpoint, this film's reimagining of the Odyssey was part of the creative praxis for my own loose retelling of the Cadmus myth in Minotaur.

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