Friday, March 21, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

It hit me a few months ago when I was watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? for an upcoming project: I admire the films of Joel & Ethan Coen more than I like them. Allow me to explain: I do enjoy some of their movies. Raising Arizona is a madcap goof that perfectly channels Nicolas Cage's manic energy, The Big Lebowski has a shambling plot that matches it's slacker attitude and Jeff Bridge's terrific performance, and No Country for Old Men makes perfect use of minimalism to create a powerful examination of violence. You can add Barton Fink, Fargo, and Burn After Reading to the list of Coen Brothers films I actively like as well. But there's a distance in their films that makes it difficult for me to really enjoy most of them. Specifically, it's a distance between themselves and the audience, one that's likely intentional, but even though it allows me to enjoy the formal elements at play, I have a hard time connecting with what I'm seeing. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it works well with the material (as in the above examples), but most of the time it just doesn't work for me.

Inside Llewyn Davis, the directors' most recent film, centers on a struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac) in 1960s New York. He shuffles from one gig to the next, couch-hopping in between session work that he doesn't get paid for. An affair with Jean (Carey Mulligan) has resulted in pregnancy and her barely-contained animosity toward him, and he's barely got any money left. Like many Coen protagonists, the world keeps dealing him a bad hand, despite the fact that he does have real talent.

More after the jump.

Though the film's narrative contains that distance that has marked so many Coen Brothers films, Inside Llewyn Davis comes off as remarkably human and emotional. The film more or less sends Llewyn through the same kind of cosmic tribulations that Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) endured in the Coens' 2009 film A Serious Man. However, Isaac's performance is so deeply felt and genuinely moving that Llewyn feels less like a pawn and more like a real human being. Indeed, a major reason that this film works as well as it does is a result of Isaac, who wears Llewyn's weary determination perfectly on his furrowed brow. Similarly, there are several truly great supporting performances that barely extend past a scene or two. Adam Driver (of Girls fame) has a hilarious part as a novelty-song-singing cowboy who records the excellent "Please Mr. Kennedy" with Llewyn and Jean's boyfriend, Jim (Justin Timberlake). F. Murray Abraham, on the other hand, delivers a quietly devastating performance as a Chicago record executive who's brutally frank with Llewyn; his reading of the line "I just don't see any money in it" is a knockout.

But it's not just the acting that makes this film work. The Coens seem to have intentionally torn down part of that wall between them and the audience, as their screenplay works more like a character study than a parable. Whereas Larry Gopnik and Barton Fink were caught in situations that were way beyond their control (and possibly supernatural in origin), Llewyn's bad luck is mostly his own doing. He's so determined not to "sell out" but at the same time so desperately needs money that he doesn't realize how contradictory those ideas are, and can't help alienating the people who would genuinely help him. As such, Llewyn and the film raise an interesting question: what is the compromise between art and commerce? It's no accident that this story plays out in the 1960s folk scene, just before folk hero Bob Dylan had his electric Judas moment at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Passionate idealism and calculated capitalism exist on opposite planes, and for the two to meet, the film suggests, some sacrifices may have to be made. Llewyn, of course, is just too stubborn to see that.

Still, the film ends up being a little underwhelming. In particular, Mulligan's Jean isn't given too much to do other than yell at Llewyn, while Garrett Dillahunt and Timberlake appear in roles that are barely around long enough to make an impression. There is still some of that remove, as well, at times feeling as if the Coens are worried that the audience is getting too emotionally involved in the story and have to be pushed out. That weird mix makes it hard to fully invest in the film and it's overall statement.

Inside Llewyn Davis works as an odd mix of everything that I like and dislike about the Coen Brothers and their films. While there's a lot of technically great stuff happening, it's hard to really give in to the film when it seems to be trying to push you away. I have a lot of admiration for the film - especially Isaac's performance - but I can't really say that it's a film that I really like. B-

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