Mark Reviews Movies

Inside Llewyn Davis


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund

MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 12/6/13 (limited); 12/20/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 19, 2013

The film's title comes from the eponymous folk musician's first and only solo album, which is, by all accounts and like the man whose name encompasses two-thirds of the title, a failure. The record was an act of defiance against everyone who assumed any chance of a career for him would fade after the loss of his musical partner. The beautiful harmony of their voices haunts an early scene of Inside Llewyn Davis, during which nothing goes right for the perpetually down-on-his-luck protagonist.

It's simple stuff, too. He tries to leave the condominium of a well-to-do academic couple who was kind enough to let him crash in their guest bedroom, but the couple's cat bolts out the door as he tries to leave. He spends a good amount of time trying to find a place to keep the cat until he can return the feline from Greenwich Village, where he and his struggling artist acquaintances go from couch to couch if they aren't able to afford the rent on some hole of an apartment, to the Upper West Side. The song plays on through the whole sequence, which is both joyous and indescribably sad in its details of a man who cannot catch a break but keeps going nonetheless.

What we're not aware of this early in the film is that his inability to find any success isn't just bad luck or some universal force outside of his control. It's his own fault. Here is a man who admits—during what amounts to the best job interview a starving folk singer could ever want—that he doesn't like harmonizing. He's stubborn in his desire to make it on his own, even though the only modicum of success he's ever had is with someone else. It's Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) against the world, and in the tradition of the writing/directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen, the world, in its wickedly ironic ways, isn't going to let him forget his most prominent foible.

He has talent—plenty of it, in fact. The opening scene finds Llewyn on the stage of the Gaslight Café some night in 1961, and there's the unmistakable sight of honesty in his performance of a depressing folk ballad that bemoans death—not the final moment but the "layin' in the grave so long."

He's just about there in terms of his career. He doesn't make any money from sales of his record. Mel (Jerry Grayson), the head of the independent label that pressed his only albums, insists that public just needs time to adjust to the concept of him as a solo act, but it's not like he and his former partners had much success. A cynic might wonder if the whole company is a scam, but if it is, it's a lousy one. Mel's office is meager, and boxes full of unsold records just take up space in the storage closet. While crashing in the tiny apartment of yet another struggling folk musician, Llewyn happens upon a box of that singer's records while trying to find a place to store his own—boxes upon boxes of broken dreams.

Llewyn's personal life is equally a mess. Jean (Carey Mulligan), the only person he might care about, hates him (She compares him to "King Midas' idiot brother"). She's dating Jim (Justin Timberlake), another singer but one who's more than willing to sell out in order to make some actual money in the business, and is pregnant. She wants Llewyn to set up an appointment to terminate the pregnancy—not the first time he's had to do that for a woman—but only because she thinks there's a chance he—not Jim—is the father.

Here are two possible fathers. Over there are two identical cats. Later on, Llewyn takes a road trip to Chicago to meet a high-profile club owner (F. Murray Abraham) with a pair of fellow travelers—a mostly silent poet (Garrett Hedlund) and an insult-hurling jazz aficionado (John Goodman). It's some sort of cosmic joke on Llewyn, who must be constantly reminded that he likely will only do any good for himself if he actually lets another person into his life. There's a pivotal moment—a staring contest between Llewyn and a cat—where he could finally take responsibility for something other than himself or just keep plodding forward in a selfish haze.

The road trip itself is a vague oddity of an extended sequence—if one will permit the metaphor, an off-key bridge in the middle of a song—in a film that, up until that point, has so clearly defined a very specific predicament for a very specific person in a very specific time and place. It jolts the film into different territory. The first act presents the problems of the nomadic minstrel—problems that are quite directly the result of a man who is both egotistical and self-defeating (Isaac plays this paradox beautifully in a performance that lays bare a wounded soul). From the road trip on, the Coens' screenplay becomes a series of fatalistic jokes—from stepping in sloshy snow to a Catch-22 with union dues—that shift the focus away from its astute character study.

Even so, there's plenty to value here after the turn, especially in how the Coens play a trick with the film's bookends to give Llewyn's tale an almost mythical stature. The concluding scenes of Inside Llewyn Davis are déjà vu, that weird psychological trick that serves to remind us that life has a tendency to double back on itself. It's akin to the torment suffered by those occupants of the Greek underworld, forced to relive the same folly over and over again while layin' in the grave so long.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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