It's Hard to Get Inside Llewyn Davis, but It's Worthwhile
- Friday, December 06, 2013
DVD Release Date: March 11, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: December 6, 2013 limited; expands through December
Rating: R (forstrong language including some sexual references, and drug references)
Run Time: 105 min
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham, Stark Sands
We're used to seeing stories about dreams coming true. Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of one that doesn't.
A signature Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis melds sensibilities from far ends of their idiosyncratic spectrum. Combining the music-driven travails of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (one of their most popular efforts) with the existential struggle of A Serious Man (one of their least popular), this folk tale of folk music is highly-accessible in some strokes and near-impenetrable in others. It entertains both as dark comedy and default musical, but if you don’t empathize with the title character’s discontent or the film's palpable melancholy, it may leave you cold. But if you do it may move you, even deeply.
From the burgeoning Beat Generation of New York's Greenwich Village in the early 60s, folk music began to emerge, as did its legends, Bob Dylan most notably. But many lacked the necessary talent, while others (despite their best efforts) were never blessed with the alchemy of a breakthrough.
Title character Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, The Nativity Story) is (very) loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, one of those talented singer-songwriters that mostly fell through the cracks. Llewyn bares his soul through lyric and music but, despite having an album produced - from which the film derives its title - he fails to gain any traction beyond working gig-to-gig. As one person coldly tells him: "I don't see any money here."
No one appreciates Llewyn's gift - probably because he’s a hard person to appreciate. No sooner do we see him croon a poignant tune to open the film than he gets beat up in an alley, and then cursed out by one of his close friends whose help and generosity he's abused for too long (along with her heart).
Llewyn is a drifter, from one friend's couch to the next. He's a nomad and loner, not by carefree spirit but as the result of irresponsibility. Llweyn is a hard worker, a man of sincere intent – but too much of a music snob to build a career (or a life). His music nerd elitism boarders on obnoxious. Where most would see wisdom he sees compromise, and his angst for romantic perfectionism is the root of his unhappiness.
Like O Brother Where Art Thou?, which paralleled Homer's The Odyssey, Inside Llewyn Davis ends up being an odyssey of its own. There isn't a narrative or character arc. Rather, it's a series of randomly connected events that stumble into each other, as if to emphasize the very randomness of both life and success (or lack thereof). Llewyn remains stagnant throughout, not very different at the end than when we first meet him. But his arrested development is the point as the Coens explore what a life fueled by passion but completely stunted in growth looks like, and feels like.
Along Llewyn's journey we meet a variety of characters, from fellow musicians to supportive friends to others that briefly enter and exit. On the surface, each plays like broad one-dimensional archetypes who burden the already put-upon Llewyn, whether by their cluelessness, indifference, volatility, or sheer innocence. Despite Llewyn's unlikable traits, Isaac makes him a sympathetic figure through the exasperation felt in each exchange with these simplistic people, as well as in every rejection, turn of bad luck, or defeat.
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