Inside Llewyn Davis
Coen brothers get musical in melancholic character study
Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman
The one thing you can usually count on in the eclectic oeuvre of the Coen bros. is a sly, slapstick-intellectual, “Is it or isn’t it a joke?” sense of humor. With the majority of their movies, you find yourself waiting for the ultimate “punch line.” It may be a “based on a true story” tale that’s nothing of the sort (Fargo) or a cornpone rewrite of Homer’s Odyssey from two guys who claim to have never read it (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) or a carnivalesque critique of the US political landscape (The Big Lebowski). Or were those just distractions from the real punch lines? You never can tell with the Coen boys. They are, after all, the guys who have employed a fake editor (the nonexistent “Roderick Jaynes”) for decades.
Occasionally, though, you’ll get a Coen film that seems to be completely straight-faced and serious (True Grit, Miller’s Crossing, A Serious Man). Maybe it is. Or maybe that’s the joke. The latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen, the enigmatic music biz tale Inside Llewyn Davis, will certainly have audience members debating. The film isn’t without some occasional bone-dry humor. But a comedy it’s not. In fact it’s quite unlike any other Coen film. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The Coens have always displayed a cheerful sympathy for all their characters, even the bad ones (be they the murderous weirdo played by Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men or the farcical German nihilists from The Big Lebowski). But it’s hard to work up much empathy for the man in the title here. Relative unknown Oscar Isaac (Drive, Sucker Punch, Robin Hood) completely and convincingly inhabits the skin of Llewyn Davis, a self-centered Greenwich Village folk singer circa 1961. Davis, to be perfectly blunt, is a huge jerk. Oh, sure, he’s talented. Isaac gives perfect voice to his character’s maudlin, death-obsessed folk tunes. But humble this guy is not. When he’s not sitting in a dingy venue strumming his guitar, Davis is pissing off club owners, screwing over women and surfing from couch to couch in search of a place to rest his scruffy head.
Inside Llewyn Davis gives us a very short window into our antihero’s mind. We spend about 72 hours exploring the life of the exasperating Mr. Davis. During that time, he finds out he’s impregnated his former girlfriend (Carey Mulligan), lost his best friend’s cat and been dumped by his do-nothing manager. Desperate to make something happen in his life, he hitches a ride to Chicago with a nasty, motormouthed jazzman (the scene-stealing John Goodman) for a wing-and-a-prayer audition. Along the way, our man Davis has plenty of opportunities to take the high road (sometimes literally) and straighten out his screwed-up life. He skillfully manages to avoid all of them.
Brusque and selfish as Llewyn Davis is, there’s something mesmerizing in his self-made plight. Under the surface (deeply, perhaps) the Coens have created a muddy gray comedy about artistic temperament and misguided cultural nostalgia. The lead character is insulted and abused so mercilessly that the film sometimes borders on sadistic black comedy. The film begins and ends, for example, with Davis getting the crap beaten out of him for reasons he doesn’t even understand. And yet we sort of feel the guy has got it coming to him. Inside Llewyn Davis knows there’s often a fine line between a loser and a winner. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it musical cameo at film’s end drives this home beautifully, if cruelly.
The film fades in at the early stages of New York’s folk music scene, and it creates a powerful sense of time and place. The soundtrack (sung by the actors themselves) is evocative as all get-out. But this was a short-lived scene filled less with finger-snapping beatniks, million-selling record contracts and happy hootenannies and more with starving artists, cold water flats and back alley abortions. Even if our Sisyphean protagonist were to succeed, it would be a brief victory, terminating when the hippies and their psychedelic rock pushed guys in turtlenecks singing Dust Bowl ballads off the stage for good. The film’s chilly, late-winter cinematography looks like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover come to life—all dull grays, sallow browns and faded blues. The overwhelming feeling here is one of melancholy, missed opportunities and nagging regret over bad life choices. Tone-wise that’s a pretty appropriate accompaniment to a film about the folk rock revival.