Thursday, March 13, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

The title character of the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is a folksinger, played expertly by Oscar Isaac, who is living and working in New York City in the winter of 1961. Llewyn has a number of qualities that make him at once an unlikely choice for the main character of a film and an ideal Coen Brothers hero: he’s poor, vain, unlucky with women, and in the midst of mourning his former partner. Llewyn is also a fine guitarist and performer of traditional folk songs and a part of the folk club scene. He is, in short, an American original writ small and the Coens wouldn’t have him any other way. Inside Llewyn Davis covers just a few decisive days in Llewyn’s life and brings him to the brink of his best self before cresting on an irony that’s built into the very structure of the film. This is a film as intimate and sad as the music Llewyn makes, and in its love for Llewyn the man it is also the most tender film the Coen Brothers have ever made.

Llewyn spends the days between gigs hustling for places to sleep and for royalties from his label, which seems to be run out of one room by an octogenarian. (The Coen’s taste for dry absurdist humor comes to the fore when Llewyn talks business.) One morning Llewyn lets a cat slip out the door of a place he’s crashing, and it’s while dealing with the cat that Llewyn learns that fellow folksinger and one-time fling Jean (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant. A lesser movie might have painted Jean - whom Mulligan plays with a terrific angry streak - as a soul mate in waiting, but here she and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) yearn for a settled, domestic life that Llewyn thinks he doesn’t want. In the movie’s comic high point Jim drags Llewyn into recording a space-themed novelty song (“Please Mr. Kennedy”) with another singer (Adam Driver), and Llewyn is so eager to leave and so hard up for cash that he bargains away his royalties. What Llewyn does want is a Chicago audition for folk impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), and it’s in that audition that the idea that Llewyn is making a mistake by beating his way through life alone becomes central. There is an interlude involving a car trip and an older musician (John Goodman) where the film’s forward movement stops for a bit too long, but it’s these scenes that suggest what Llewyn might become if he refuses to connect with other people. Oscar Isaac as Llewyn is terrific throughout, and the self-defeating anger that he lays into his characterization never overwhelms the sense of a man growing into himself.

The most important scene in Inside Llewyn Davis involves Llewyn getting beaten up outside a club. It’s the only scene in the movie we see twice and it flips the story around to signal the Coens’ intentions. Llewyn can accept the past and move forward, but music won’t be as kind to him as he has been to it. The Coen Brothers haven’t given up on their darkly funny view of the universe, but within that frame they’ve made a film about a man’s small victories and defeats that is their most mature work to date.

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