Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) / Drama-Musical

MPAA Rated: R for language including some sexual references
Running Time: 105 min.

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Max Casella, Garrett Hedlund, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Review published November 27, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis is a Coen Brothers (True Grit, A Serious Man) exploration into the folk scene in Greenwich Village in New York in 1961. As the title suggests, we follow a few days in the exploits of one folk singer, Llewyn Davis (Isaac, Drive), who is having a tough time finding traction as a solo act on the folk circuit following the loss of his longtime singing partner (Their album, "If I Had Wings" gives a wry wink to the final fate of the duo's other half). When he's not performing in a rare gig for a few meager bucks, he's bumming a night or two on a friend's couch, and bumming a cigarette or two as well, though even there, he's running out of options. To make matters worse, he gets locked out with the tabby of one of his friends, while being asked by the wife (Mulligan, Public Enemies) of another friend (Timberlake, Runner Runner) to pay for an abortion for the baby that may be his own.

Oscar Isaac is a marvel in the lead role, both as an actor and as a singer, who alternates between sympathetic, stubborn, and boorishly unlikeable in a very convincing fashion. Davis has grown bitter and frustrated in his profession, not able to stick to an adequate game plan to success, and not willing to do things he's asked to do in order to get a leg up. The Coens' set up a particular kind of torment for Davis in which he has several means to get out of his current rut, but through his own decisions, he manages to avoid almost every one of them, digging himself further into the trench of depression, to the point where he contemplates a return to his father's profession as a merchant marine. He even talks himself out of a free coat, which he desperately could use -- he's the worst manager he could possibly have.

Though the character is fictional (to a point -- folk fans have noted the loose parallels to Dave Van Ronk), the Coens push forward the comical notion, as if the film were one big joke, that there had once been a Bob Dylan before there was a Bob Dylan (who hails from the Coens' own state of Minnesota), peaking just a little too early to be the trendsetter that other folk superstar would eventually become.  Not surprisingly, the film echoes this very notion in a literal way in its closing scenes.

In addition to Isaac, there are a plethora of rich and colorful supporting characters, which is par for the course in any Coen outing.  This includes Coen regular John Goodman (Monsters University, Flight), who delivers yet again with another notable off-kilter performance as jazz musician Roland Turner, who dresses down Llewyn and his folk music at every opportunity.  F. Murray Abraham (13 Ghosts, Finding Forrester) also captivates as a renowned club owner and talent manager who sees music as a commodity more so than an art form; it's easy to imagine that the Coens themselves have met up with similar types in the move side of the business when trying to pitch their own artsy ideas.  These are small roles, but the Coens give them rich detail; if we ended up following any number of these smaller characters into their own movies, we'd likely have just as great a time as we have following Llewyn.

But the real scene stealer is an orange tabby that belongs to a couple of friends who were kind enough to lend their couch to Llewyn who escapes the apartment just when Llewyn is about to close the locked door.  Llewyn feels obligated to carry this new load around with him, just as he carries all of his own heavy worries, and then it escapes at the most inopportune times -- he comes and goes throughout the movies, just like Llewyn's luck.  We eventually do find out the name of the cat (the name, while not ostensibly significant except for its obvious literary allusion, will be familiar to those who know the inspiration for the Coens' offbeat odyssey, O Brother Where Art Thou). 

The sense of time and setting is impeccable, as the environs of New York and places beyond have a feel seemingly ripped from photographs taken of the location during the iconic era, many of which were used in the original promotional material of the very same artists this film is influenced by. There is a large nostalgic streak that runs throughout, but not overly so.  It's one of the rare films in which the Coens did not enlist the services of Roger Deakins, bringing in Bruno Delbonnel (Dark Shadows, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), who gives the film a soft-focus look, with much use of symmetry, light, shadows and fog to create a truly remarkable level of space and atmosphere.  It's we were looking at an LP cover of a folk musician of the era and stepped right in.

The most instantly appealing aspect of Inside Llewyn Davis will be its T-Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack; Burnett also produced the music for that other aforementioned music-heavy Coen Bros. flick, O Brother Where Art Thou. In addition to the folk ballads sung by Davis, there are an interesting array of duets and group songs of different flavors that pop up throughout, including a hilariously kitschy (and catchy) novelty song called, "Please Mr. Kennedy" (the only original song in the film), in which the trio pleads not to be sent to the moon, featuring Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver (Lincoln, Frances Ha) with their unique vocal styles.  But the traditional songs chosen are not only hauntingly beautiful, but they coincide with the melancholy nature of the story in a sublime way; it's hard to imagine the story working nearly as well with the removal of them.

Some Coen Brothers fans may be a bit underwhelmed by something as light and inconclusive as Inside Llewyn Davis, and while it may not rank among their meatiest of films, it certainly succeeds splendidly as a comic slice of life, not too dissimilar to such works as Sweet and Lowdown by Woody Allen, rather than the one obviously comparable in subject matter, Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind. Its about an artist trying to find a way to make a living from his art in an environment that is all about trying to monetize the talent so that one can eke out a living doing what they have a talent to do. And yet, when asked to sing for the joy of it, he ironically stops himself, feeling he's a professional who should be paid whenever he utilizes his golden voice.

Inside Llewyn Davis is like finding a portfolio full of old photographs and vivid mementos of years gone past, allowing us to appreciate the story at face value, but also admire the art and subtext of the period underneath the surface-level story.  While it may not be the most commercial film in their filmography, it's one of those elliptical films one can't help but like and yet not be able to put a finger on exactly why it is so enjoyable.  It's due to their deep love and admiration for the artists and their material, as well as their craft at recreating a time and place that is, in what might sound like a contradiction, both wholly unique to its own peculiar universe and still feels culled from the lives and experiences of some very real people. 

Inside Llewyn Davis is a circular story, which, like the ballads contained within the film, repeats motifs like lyrics of a song, with echoing rhythms and refrains like a well-honed folk chorus.  Like the music contained within, it's steeped in olden tradition, but evokes something brand new for another generation of audiences.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo