I was recently speaking with a friend of mine who criticized the Coen brothers’ films for being too “on the nose.” “So what?” I said. “That’s the whole point!” Their new ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a case study example.
The Coens themselves have said that the movie doesn’t have much of a plot. I guess it doesn’t, yet I was enraptured for all 105 minutes. The film is a vivid depiction of the trials and tribulations of the title character (Oscar Isaac), a heartbroken, misanthropic folk singer hanging by the end of his creative rope in early 1960s Greenwich Village. We meet him giving an impassioned rendition of the blues classic “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street. He garners scattered applause, is summoned to a back alley, and is summarily beaten senseless by a stranger. This is more or less the gist of the rest of the film: Llewyn plays some pretty good music, is subjected to extensive humiliations, and amidst it all, just keeps going. It’s dark, but oddly endearing and truthful.
As we tag along on Llewyn’s odyssey of music playing, subway riding and couch crashing, we meet the eclectic mix of supporting (but not so supportive) players in his life. There’s the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), the parents of Llewyn’s deceased musical partner, who seem willing to forgive him for anything so long as they can maintain a connection to their dead son. There’s Jean (Carey Mulligan), an angst-ridden Beatnik/ex-lover livid with LLewyn for getting her pregnant (“It takes two to tango,” he reminds her) and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake), whose cluelessness makes it all the more awkward when Llewyn asks him to borrow money for Jean’s abortion. Then there’s Mel (Jerry Grayson), Llewyn’s shifty manager who screws him on royalties, only to offer him the coat off his back (though he backs out of even that deal).
Llewyn’s family is in the mix, too, with his sister Joy (Jeanine Serralles) encouraging him to abandon music outright, while his invalid father Hugh (Stan Carp) responds to a heartfelt rendition of “The Shoals of Herring” by relieving his bowels. Perhaps most importantly, there’s an orange cat that Llewyn haphazardly finds himself caring for not only in Manhattan, but on a Chicago-bound road trip with flamboyant heroin addict/jazz musician Roland Turer (John Goodman, in a role only he could play) and his driver Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund, doing a mumbling Brando in ‘The Wild One’ impersonation).
This journey provides the only real quest in the film. LLewyn ventures to the Windy City to audition for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, in a clear nod and wink to Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager). With everything hanging in the balance, he throws everything he has left into a gut-wrenching rendition of “Queen Jane.” Suffice it to say, this scene is one of the most succinct depictions of art versus commerce I’ve ever seen on screen. I also think it’s no accident that we’ see the man famous for playing Salieri rendering judgment.
I know this may sounds grim, but the film is nowhere near as depressing as it might seem. Isaac is a revelation. You may have seen him as an ill-fated con in ‘Drive’ or a trained assassin in ‘The Bourne Legacy’, but those roles would give you no clue as to the raw intensity he brings to Llewyn. What’s more, his musical chops are the real deal. The question remains: Is Llewyn an asshole? I’m not sure. He’s rudderless, cynical and wholly self defeating, but I found myself oddly drawn to his plight – as I think many other people who’ve invested their lives in creative endeavors might. His travails embody every starving artist’s worst nightmares. For every Bob Dylan, there are countless LLewyn Davises playing their hearts out in the gutter, soon to be forgotten as the times start a-changing.