Review by Pete Mason
I expected to walk out of the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” refreshed and satisfied after yet another great film from the Oscar-winning pair. Instead, I was surprised and confused that this rare miss was 100+ minutes of a journey that ultimately went nowhere. The music and Oscar Isaac’s breakthrough acting aside, I can barely see how this film has registered as a best of the year, or anything close to it.
The film follows the journey (a staple of Coen Brothers films) of folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) in 1961 Greenwich Village, just as the folk movement was finding footing, prior to Bob Dylan’s burst onto the scene. Davis has lost his partner and is still searching for a place to make his name and get out of his rut of sleeping on couches across Manhattan and Brooklyn, all while figuring out what the hell he wants to do with himself. He doesn’t have much direction and settles for the Merchant Marines as an only/last resort. He doesn’t even try to find another way to make a living, barely making the effort with folk singing. If there was ever a whinier protagonist I couldn’t get behind, it’s Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) in the Coen’s “Fargo.” But at least Lundegaard is funny and you feel bad for him, sort of. With Davis, you don’t feel bad, you just want him to get his act together. It almost feels like an intervention is planned, but never pulled off.
Llewyn Davis is a vagabond musician without a permanent address, playing music at times and making what money he can while subsisting on the kindness of his friends, and that’s pretty much the whole film. His character never fully develops – he stays the same throughout the film, a lapse of merely a week. Davis’ chasing of something that just isn’t there, symbolized by a cat (named Ulysses – read into that if you want) adds to the pain of the film. I’ve never seen a character so well acted but lacking in any development, lessons learned or growth over the course of a film. Start to finish, Davis is a character I could care less about. Inside his head is an interesting story, but outside, not so much.
Rounded out by all too-short appearances by a belligerent addict (John Goodman), a singer-songwriter friend from whom he takes from but never gives back (Justin Timberlake), the wife of the singer-songwriter who runs the Gaslight (Carey Mulligan), a Chicago promoter (F. Murray Abraham) and a NYC promoter (Sam Casella), the supporting cast members are all more compelling than Davis, but with less screentime. Go figure.
The music in the movie though is a true highlight, and the soundtrack, produced by the incredible T. Bone Burnett (“O Brother Where Art Thou?” and “The Ladykillers” – both with the Coens) saves the film from being an arduous endeavor to watch. Focusing on folk music from the 1950s and early 1960s, Burnett pulls from the hootenanny and Sing Out! era of NYC music, the artists from Greenwich Village and acts like Tom Paxton who gained brief fame during the genre’s heyday. Marcus Mumford (Mulligan’s husband) adds vocals to the songs in a way that makes Mumford and Sons sound like futuristic folkies, which, when compared to the 1960s folk scene, they sort of are. The highlight of the film, musically and otherwise, is the scene in the studio where “Please Mr. Kennedy” is tracked out, with a scene stealing Adam Driver (“Girls”). But that’s about it. “Inside Llewyn Davis” had such high hopes and fizzled out.