“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song”, quips Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) after finishing a set in front of a familiar audience. That’s what it seems like we’re supposed to glean from Joel and Ethan Coen’s glimpse “Inside Llewyn Davis”, a wistfully downbeat, tragically comical film that transpires during a particularly tumultuous week in the eponymous musician’s life. For our main character, nothing is ever really new, but he continues to tread familiar ground because there’s at least an ounce of hope that it might one day bring him success. Ultimately, the film feels like it’s telling us more about an era than a person.
It’s 1961 and the pre-Dylan folk music scene is still limited mostly to cavernous venues like the Gaslight Cafe in New York’s East Village, a place that undiscovered talents like Llewyn have played a thousand times before. In the opening, a spotlight penetrates the club’s dingy subterranean haze to illuminate Isaac’s Llewyn as he plays “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, a requiem perhaps for others like Llewyn who are weary from endless gigs and nonexistent record sales. It’s an almost staggeringly beautiful introduction to the character, but decidedly more so to Isaac’s musical talent, which is the film’s biggest attribute; even if you’re not a fan of folk music, it’s almost impossible not to be moved by the sentiment and proficiency behind it.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is practically a folk song in itself, following the struggling musician as he scrapes the bottom of the barrel to keep his dream alive. His daily grind involves finding a couch to sleep on for the night and lining up the next gig – something it seems he’s been doing for an eternity, as we find out that his solo career is a spinoff of a duet that was not so successful to begin with. His record, entitled Inside Llewyn Davis, isn’t selling. He gets a minor break, courtesy of his friend and fellow folk artist Jim (Justin Timberlake) as backup on a pop song called “Please, Mr. Kennedy” (I’ll admit, it’s pretty catchy), but he opts for a relatively meager amount of cash up front over the royalties.
The film’s wintry New York landscape lends an immediacy to Llewyn’s quandary, as he can’t even afford a winter coat, and he’s burdened with the well-being of a cat who he accidentally lets escape from his friend’s uptown apartment (he subsequently lets the cat escape again from another friend’s apartment – there’s something to that, I’m sure of it, as the feline repeatedly appears throughout the film like some sort of apparition). Maybe his misfortune is just karma rearing its ugly head; a few major improprieties, including the possible impregnating of Jim’s sweet-by-appearance but ferociously bitter wife and singing partner Jean (Carey Mulligan), might have something to do with it.
The narrative, like a few of the Coens’ films, is a curiously circuitous one, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” sometimes lacks the substance to accommodate such a meandering story as if only to reiterate how truly tedious and torturous the lifestyle of a struggling musician can be. One might question whether they’re missing something or if there’s some deeper metaphorical value to some of the mysterious characters who are introduced (John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund appear as a couple of unusual road trip companions) as Llewyn heads to Chicago to meet with a renowned club owner (F. Murray Abraham).
Perhaps that’s the point to “Llewyn Davis”, a film which is often as cryptic as the lyrics to the music it showcases. The film could be about a pioneer, a lost soul – maybe just a guy who’s so desperate and fed up that his intentions are misinterpreted as selfish. Or maybe Llewyn is a composite of so many talents that would eventually popularize folk music. There are references aplenty to icons from the booming folk scene of the mid ’60s – one in particular shouldn’t go to waste on anybody – and the Coens (“The Big Lebowski”, “No Country For Old Men”) paint a portrait of that era at once vivid and surreal, as few can do so seamlessly. Executive music producer T. Bone Burnett and Oscar Isaac produce some incredible tracks (my favorite, ‘Fare Thee Well’, includes associate music producer Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons); the music and set design are quite transportive. But don’t expect anything transformative. We see Llewyn’s disdain for his craft almost eclipsing his passion for it when he’s asked to play a song informally at a dinner party, but Isaac’s acting range might have given this character a whole additional dimension. Instead we only feel like we’re scratching the surface of Llewyn Davis, even if his music speaks volumes about the dark, often unforgiving place he inhabits.
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