Great music, atmosphere, problematic character in ‘Llewyn Davis’
The new film, from Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, may not quite be what viewers expect. After the Coens celebrated the rural, regional folk music of the American South of the 1930s in O Brother, Where Art Thou, a few years back, fans may expect more of the same from the new film, with a more urban vibe. But while Llewyn Davis is set in the Greenwich Village folk scene ca. 1961, and positively teems with yearning, vintage-sounding music that might very plausibly have come from that era, it mines a much darker vein of experience as a down-on-his-luck, would-be folk singer struggles against all odds to get a foothold in the music business.
In fact, the new film has more in common with the Coen’s A Serious Man, an ironic update of the Biblical story of Job, in which a hapless suburban Everyman had to cope with one damn thing after another thrown into his path by an unforgiving universe. The protagonist in Llewyn Davis also endures trials, but they mostly stem from his own bad judgment and bristly personality.
Things could be better for guitar-strumming singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who spends his nights crashing on friends’ couches while trying to hustle up some gigs in the Village. The folksinging partner with whom he recorded a debut album has jumped off a bridge. Tensions arise with his married folksinging friends, Jim and Jeannie (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), when Jeannie finds out she’s pregnant—possibly with Llewyn’s child. He’s become the reluctant guardian of another friend’s runaway orange cat, and he can’t even afford an overcoat against the blustery cold of a New York winter.
Between occasional numbers at a cellar club called the Gaslight Cafe, Llewyn tries to extract non-existent royalties from his business manager, sits in on Jim’s recording of a novelty song (but signs away his right to royalties for an advance he can turn over to Jeannie), and tries to get anyone to listen to his solo album “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Wearing out his welcome among his friends for his persistently bitter comments and insults, he hitches a ride to Chicago with an acerbic old jazz musician (John Goodman) and his young, hipster driver (Garrett Hedlund) in hopes of auditioning for the owner of a celebrated nightclub.
The problem is, despite the movie’s title, we never do get inside Llewyn Davis; the character as written is all angsty exterior. Isaac, an appealing actor who has been wonderful in supporting roles for years, manages to bring moments of poignancy, even fleeting tenderness, to the character, and he turns out to be a terrific singer as well. But there’s a limited amount of time and energy we’re willing to invest in a character who persistently refuses to make any progress in life, in his music, or in his relationships with other people. The journey he takes in the course of the film, both physically and emotionally, lands him back in exactly the same place.
But where the movie comes alive is in the music, and the depiction of the era. (The legendary T Bone Burnett, along with Marcus Mumford, produced the music.) Singers of the traditional folk songs Llewyn finds so corny are getting all the attention, but the times, they are a-changin,’ and Dylan is just around the corner (as referenced in a wry, fleeting onscreen moment). Isaac sings Llewyn’s gritty solos with plenty of verve. And the novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy (Don’t Send Me Into Space),” that he sings with Timberlake, with the very funny Adam Driver providing bass and counterpoint, is exactly true to the era, and hilarious too. (It’s also the only time in the movie that Llewyn seems to be enjoying his chosen profession.) These are moments to remember in an ambitious, but uneven film.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS ★ ★ ★ (out of four) With Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, and Justin Timberlake. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. A CBS Films release. Rated R. 105 minutes.