Sunday, December 8, 2013

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Image courtesy of CBS Films.
If the title "Almost Famous" hadn't already been taken, Joel and Ethan Coen could have surely used it for "Inside Llewyn Davis," their haunting, hilarious and melancholic new film.

While the titular fictional troubadour, who is played by Oscar Isaac and based somewhat on pre-Dylan era singer Dave Van Ronk, may not exactly be scrounging for his next meal, he's frequently in need of a couch while navigating the scene of 1960s folk music in the Village. Davis is sort of a lovable lout, a guy who's more talented than this peers, many of whom use gimmicks to sell their acts, but he's unable to catch a break.

The Coens' film follows a week in the life of Davis as he surfs from apartment to apartment and then off to Chicago, where he attempts to land a gig or contract with The Gate of Horn's Bud Grossman (played by F. Murray Abraham and based on Albert Grossman, who put together Peter, Paul and Mary) and back again. Similar to the much-beleaguered Larry Gopnik, of the Coens' brilliant 2009 film "A Serious Man," Davis faces trial after trial of Job-like proportions before settling into his fate. The film also bears thematic resemblance to the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" in its Homeric references.

Much like many of the Coens' other films, "Inside Llewyn Davis" tells the tale of a man bound for failure, not because he is untalented, but because the cosmos has seemingly conspired against him or, hell, because life's just unfair like that.

As I've mentioned, Davis is no angel. He shows up unexpected at the homes of his Village - and, in one case, Upper East Side - pals with the intention of crashing at their homes, but eventually ends up insulting them. He has impregnated one friend, Jean (an acerbically funny Carey Mulligan, who is part of a duo/couple with a surprisingly straight-laced Justin Timberlake) and it's mentioned that he previously knocked up another young woman. He even has a go-to doctor for abortions. Davis is also not particularly polite when commenting on other performers, which likely stems from the fact that he's a greater talent, but has less commercial appeal than his fellow folk singers.

In one of the film's best plot threads, Davis accidentally allows the cat one of his friends escape. The fate of this animal, who is appropriately named Ulysses, and Davis's are intertwined during their odyssey through the streets of New York and Chicago. It's particularly heartbreaking when Davis betrays his feline friend during a later sequence.

As always, the Coens have a terrific line-up of character actors in relatively minor roles, including Sylvia Kauders as a batty secretary, John Goodman as a heroine-addicted jazz musician who accompanies Llewyn on his voyage to Chicago, Garrett Hedlund poking fun at his role as Neal Cassady in last year's "On the Road" as Goodman's valet, Johnny Five, Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as Davis' Upper East Side friends, the Gorfeins, Adam Driver as a wanna-be cowboy-styled singer named Al Cody, Stark Sands as an overly sincere soldier-turned-folk singer and Abraham as Grossman.

And while the film is certainly downbeat and a bit of a heartbreaker, it features some of the funniest sequences in the Coens' canon, including an early visit by Llewyn to his manager and the recording of a novelty hit known as "Please Mr. Kennedy."

One of the more fascinating elements of the directors' period pieces is that they capture the look and mood of an era without overindulging in the reference of landmark incidents, although one particular person of interest pops up during the film's final scenes. Their latest picture, which is set in 1961, is lovely to look at - thanks to some great work by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel - despite that rain or snow continuously batter our hero and, overall, the film has a visually gloomy style.

Some might argue that "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a smaller film for the Coens and does not go for the grandeur of a "No Country for Old Men," but I'd say that it thematically fits in with their overall body of work and is just as much of a major work as "A Serious Man" or "Barton Fink." It's a film that is often lovely, funny, sad, brooding and, on occasion, flat-out bizarre.

Davis may continue to gig at The Gaslight, singing his sad interpretations of "Hang Me (Oh Hang Me)" and "The Death of Queen Jane" or he may just throw in the towel and return to the Merchant Marines, where we are told he first drifted. Toward the finale when Llewyn literally receives the final blow of his particularly grueling week, it is hinted that he may have been at the right place at the wrong time, burning out before folk music had its grand revival thanks to Dylan, Joan Baez and several others. Davis, similar to the Coens, believes in art for art's sake, regardless of whether it's financially viable or connects with a wide audience. Lord knows, he's paid his dues, tangled up in blue.

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