John Turturro, George Clooney, ...
Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

It must have been an amazing pitch meeting. How else to explain Touchstone and Universal agreeing to hand the Coens, Oscar winners for ”Fargo” but not exactly kings of the box office, more than $30 million for this idiosyncratic retelling of Homer’s ”Odyssey,” transplanted to the Depression era South? The source material is probably only slightly more obscure than the title’s in-joke: Taken from Preston Sturges’ ”Sullivan’s Travels,” it’s the drama that a director known for comedies wants to make.

And that’s not the only Sturges homage scribbled in the margins as three escaped cons (Clooney, Turturro, and Nelson) search for the money that one of them buried before going to jail. Along the way they meet sirens by a river, crash a KKK rally, and record a hit single. ”It shocked me that [the Coens] could have trouble getting a film made,” says Clooney, who had been up for a part in an earlier Coen film that never materialized. ”When they came to me with this, I immediately said yes.” GOOD SIGN Clooney generated heat with ”The Perfect Storm.” THEN AGAIN The Coens’ last big screwball homage,” The Hudsucker Proxy,” laid an egg.