When I ran my list of 2013’s best movies a couple of weeks ago, I left off one film that was on many other people’s lists, Inside Llewyn Davis. I had reservations about the Coen brothers’ latest film, but I also found some worthy things in it.
The story is set in New York in 1961, when the titular Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer trying to make it as a solo act after his musical partner’s recent suicide. Officially homeless and constantly scrounging for cash, Llewyn sleeps on the couches and spare beds of various acquaintances, including his ex-girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan). She’s massively pissed at him, having just found out she’s pregnant and not knowing whether the baby belongs to Llewyn or her current boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake). Since she doesn’t want to bear what might be Llewyn’s child, she insists he pay for her abortion.
That’s just one of the many crosses that he has to bear, and while it seems like the world is raining crap down on his head (which it sometimes is), we can see that the sour and humorless Llewyn brings a lot of it down on himself. Scene after scene shows him burning himself with people who might help him — when a professor sticks a guitar in his hand and asks him to play a song at the dinner table, Llewyn snaps, “I’m not a trained poodle!” You may remember the stocky, handsome Isaac portraying Mulligan’s ill-fated ex-con husband in Drive. The 33-year-old actor of Cuban and Guatemalan descent does well by Llewyn’s aggrieved and frequently misplaced sense of integrity, not to mention his burning jealousy as he watches the lightweight but much nicer Jim enjoy greater success as a musician
Bizarrely, the soundtrack by Fort Worth’s own T-Bone Burnett winds up being a problem. Isaac is an accomplished guitarist and sings with a fine, smooth tenor, which makes for attractive renditions of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” a duet by Llewyn and his deceased partner (Marcus Mumford, the lead singer of Mumford & Sons and Mulligan’s real-life husband). The trouble is, too many of these songs are the same kind of pretty, and as a group they give the movie too little variation in tone and texture, especially compared to Burnett’s soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Crazy Heart. The only break we get from all this good taste is a dreadful novelty song paying tribute to John Glenn that’s entitled “Please Mr. Kennedy” and sung in harmony by Isaac, Timberlake, and a Stetson-wearing Adam Driver.
Then again, Burnett’s work only fits the tone that the Coens establish. The parade of small indignities that greet Llewyn are too much alike, as he chases after a cat that has gotten out of an absent host’s locked apartment and tries to find a ride to Chicago to meet a recording mogul (F. Murray Abraham). The filmmakers’ cosmic fatalism has grown rote; when Llewyn signs away his royalties for “Please Mr. Kennedy” in exchange for some quick cash, you know that the song will be a huge hit. The movie jolts briefly to life when a boorish jazzman (John Goodman) shares a ride with Llewyn and gleefully starts trashing folk music: “In jazz, we play all the notes. Twelve notes on a scale, dipshit! Not three chords on a ookulele. G! G! C! C! D!” The movie could have sorely used more rude, bumptious humor like this instead of partaking so much of Llewyn’s sulkiness and weary resignation.
Llewyn’s career arc neatly matches that of real-life folk singer Dave Van Ronk, while other characters here are based on other folk musicians from the period. Ultimately, this is the story of a show-business failure. Possessing all kinds of musical talent, Llewyn has neither the charisma needed for a solo act nor the desire or temperament to be part of a group. He and many other musicians like him are due to be eclipsed shortly — near the end, a singer takes the stage who’s clearly meant to be Bob Dylan.
The Coens tell this story with their customary rigor and striking visuals like the opening shot of Llewyn performing on a club stage lit by a shaft of sunlight streaming in through the window. Yet we had a better movie earlier in 2013 called Frances Ha, telling a similar story of a cash-poor New York artist awkwardly coping with the realization that she won’t have the career she dreamed of. I preferred that movie’s warmth to this one’s standoffishness, but the superlative craftsmanship that goes into Inside Llewyn Davis still demands a viewing.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Starring Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Rated R.