Dec 17, 2013
Inside Llewyn Davis
Bless the Coen Brothers. Who else would devote a movie to a story of artistic failure and unabated rejection? It is miraculous, considering their longstanding artistic success, that they want to spend time in the company of a guy who can't and won't catch a break. Oscar Isaac is wonderful as ornery, uncompromising, perennial loser Llewyn Davis, a folk troubadour among many in 1960's Greenwich Village. He sings beautifully and earnestly at the famous Gaslight. He plays guitar nicely, has a heartfelt voice, but there is a sad story behind him. He used to be part of a duo a la Simon and Garfunkel that is no more. He is broke, has no place to sleep and is beset by tribulations, from getting girls pregnant to losing other people's cats. He is bitter, resentful, and somehow we root for him even if he keeps getting in his own way.
The movie is strangely enjoyable: funny and relentlessly bleak.
The Coens use their slightly surreal and sumptuous style to portray microscopic Village walk ups, (the wonderful cinematography is by Bruno Delbonnel), they give ample screen time to beautifully arranged and produced songs (by the estimable T. Bone Burnett) and they dwell in the bitterly comic misery of an ignored artist. The movie has a circular structure, like Llewyn's own L.P.s collecting dust. It starts with a spurt of violence and ends in the same place; the sad story of unheeded talent goes on and on like a broken record.
Art is a tough business. Art is no business. And Llewyn is not a passionate hero determined to make it no matter what. He tries, but is easily discouraged, and he does not have other important traits that may help sheer talent: a thick skin, endless optimism, or the gift for ingratiation, the electricity of grand ambition. He is, like many artists, contemptuous, dejected, bitter and intractable (and he is not always wrong). This may be one of the most authentic movies about artistic failure ever made; though, except for Amadeus, and the Coen's own Barton Fink, I can't think of many others.
This being a Coen movie, it is full of wonderful surprises. John Goodman steals the show playing a jazz fat cat who pontificates from the back of a car. His mockery of folk music is brutal. The incomparable F. Murray Abraham kills it in one scene as a famous impresario who is not too impressed with Llewyn. Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver sing a fantastically loopy song, and there is a wonderful cast of supporting characters, including a highly charismatic cat. If I have one qualm is that Jane, the singer played by Carey Mulligan, is too much of a shrew and her dialog (and you know the Coens' gift for ultra-specific gab) rings false. I like that, despite her angelic Peter, Paul and Mary-like vibe, outside of the stage she is mean and bitter, but there seems to be little nuance to her character.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a paean to a better Greenwich Village, with better music, in leaner times. But it is more of a poignant and caustic ode to failure. The Coens are sympathetic to and impatient with Llewyn. Even at its funniest, the film really portrays how hard it is to make it, and how hard it is to not make it: a lovely gift for anybody artistic trying to make themselves heard in an indifferent world. In a culture that is pathologically obsessed with celebrating success, Inside Llewyn Davis is a quirky splash of bittersweet reality.