INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
This is the anti-Frances Ha: the story of a loser who loses, and everyone, including him, knows it. Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautifully-acted, sharply-written, tragicomic study in wasting your life on a dream and how it is so tempting—and so terrible.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
With Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis), Carey Mulligan (Jean), Justin Timberlake (Jim), Ethan Phillips (Mitch Gorfein), John Goodman (Roland Turner), and Garrett Hedlund (Johnny Five)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Inside Llewyn Davis rides a fine line: it's a musical about a musician who is, by definition, mediocre. The temptation was probably to make his songs—covers of real folk songs, sung by Oscar Isaac with new arrangements by T Bone Burnett—really awesome. They are not. Although soulfully delivered by a surprisingly well-piped Oscar Isaac, they're wholly inoffensive, always listenable, and never so good that you would see any money in it, either.
Or, maybe, I'm a square who's not so into folk music, which is an entirely plausible alternative interpretation, because there is a soundtrack album and people have, presumably, purchased it.
Of course, that album also includes the film's good songs, which are by other people. The best song and the best musical performance in the film by far is "Please Mr. Kennedy," a super-bonkers novelty tune that I can simply not do justice to in print, so I have posted the clip above. The song, in case you're not listening to it for whatever bad reason you've chosen to justify yourself with, is about begging the then-president not to be shot into space (this was a serious social problem at the time). The song's performed principally by Justin Timberlake's Jim (a successful musician, played by a successful musician) and Adam Driver's Al Cody (who is certainly a successful something), and by Llewyn, sitting in as a session musician—and not even credited, let alone due royalties, thanks to his characteristically abysmal decisionmaking powers. I mean, it's abundantly clear it would have to be a massive hit.
The second best song is "Five Hundred Miles," which is performed by Jim again, his girlfriend Jean, and Troy Nelson, a robot built by the Army to sing folk. The third best is an acapella number by a four-man act whose name, if it's even mentioned, I did not catch. Thus, in Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn Davis achieves the fourth most memorable composition.
The point is, whether you like folk music, or even know about folk music, or neither at all: Llewyn Davis ain't no Gordon Lightfoot. Inside Llewyn Davis is a week in the life of the man as he comes to realize it. He does it in that halting way, with relapse after relapse into fantasy, that is achingly familiar to anyone who has ever embarked long and hard down a path that they once thought would lead them to the Good Life, and which they realize, perhaps too late, has led them only to their own desolation.
(And, yes, it's more entertaining than that capsule makes it sound.)
Llewyn's ambivalently decisive week begins as we implicitly comprehend most of Llewyn's weeks begin: living from gig to gig and couch to couch, condescended to by his friends, and subject to excoriations by his ex-lover (Jean again, so you see the issue).
The difference this time is that Llewyn has accidentally come into the care of a cat, which will, for most members of the audience including this one, get him 90% of the way to "loveable loser" all by itself, so this is a good turn for him. This cat is highly metaphorical but let's not jump into that particular vortex.
I'd say that another difference is that he's informed that he's probably knocked up Jean, but this is not actually his first I-need-to-pay-for-an-abortion rodeo.
The events to follow resemble nothing so much as real life, or rather the pastiche of real life in which the Coens' comedies function, where the quirky happenings and amusing misfortunes of a year are compressed into a few days' duration. However, Llewyn, unlike some others we shall not name, is not so likely to abide. It's certainly been obvious to Jean that his lifestyle has been unsustainable for a long time, and she would love to keep her baby if only she were sure it wasn't Llewyn's. ("You should live inside a condom" is my favorite line, if second favorite read, of the whole picture.)
Oh, it's clear, too, that Llewyn's life has its upsides, too, from the pure pursuit of his art, which he so obviously loves despite having no commodifiable talent at it, to the seedy bohemian coolness of it all, to the opportunity it apparently has given him to sleep with one of the world's most beautiful women, which any Jay Gatsby would tell you is more than worth spending a few nights on a few couches for. (Of course, she isn't with him now, is she?)
If he hoped and tried and failed, even if we can and must blame him, we can understand why he's still hoping and still trying and still failing. While on one hand we know he's stupidly wrong for revolting against the idea of "just existing," like his father did, I doubt even one of us has ever wanted to give up on our dreams. But there is never even the barest sense that Llewyn's dreams will ever come true; nor any sense that what Llewyn is doing is in anywise heroic. This is a sympathetic film, yes. It is emphatically not a romantic one.
But supremely sympathetic it remains: a standard criticism of the Coens is that they create characters that they despise and then make a movie devoted to laughing at their awful creations, if not outright devoted to making them suffer for all the sins their creators have supplied. I mean, I see the evidence; but I've always felt like there was more empathy than cruelty, even in their bleakest works. And with Inside Llewyn Davis, I don't think anyone can accuse them of cruelty for its own sake here.
Like with many Coen films, it's a journey more than it is any destination, and Inside Llewyn Davis could be seen as one of their most narratively ambivalent pictures, which is really saying something. Even A Serious Man ended with the Goddamned whirlwind. Inside Llewyn Davis ends with Llweyn resting against a wall because a nearly total stranger has just punched his face in.
That's not a spoiler, because it is also how Inside Llewyn Davis begins, in what could be called unnecessary in media res. But nothing about the film is so ambiguous as I first thought while walking out of the theater: with the bulk of the film thus in flashback (with a nice match-cut fade, incidentally), I see it as almost entirely clear-cut. It outright demands that we see Llewyn's bitter laughter as something similar, if not identical, to epiphany.
Of course, the draw here is not Llewyn's odyssey of self-reproachment; it is, as usual, the humor and the beauty that the Coens can draw out of such dysfunction. As for the beauty, the Coens might not be working with Roger Deakins this time, but long live Bruno Delbonnel. He's an adept replacement, using a steely wintry palette, not to all tastes and one that would often not to be to mine, but which fits the twilight of Llewyn's career so well, and is (in its own way) surely perfect. Let's call it green-and-gray, rather than the despised blue-and-gray that so many others use so poorly; and the way the light works to fade colors into onto another—and deny objects a completely static form—is an outrightly sublime a representation Llewyn's own fading ambitions, not to mention the general formlessness of his existence up till now and (perhaps) forevermore. So, what I'm saying is, as gorgeous feature-length visual metaphors go, you could do much, much worse. (Plus, even if you leave Inside Llewyn Davis with absolutely nothing else, you will still carry with you the most indelible imagery of the most impossible apartment hallways you'll have ever seen. This is not even the most interesting shot of them, but like Llewyn, you take what you can get.)
As for the humor, everyone in front of the camera is at the tip-top of their game, from Carey Mulligan's infinitely rancorous yet not entirely loveless nemesis, to Justin Timberlake's sweater-wearing folk nerd to Garrett Hedlund's laconic, chain-smoking impression of somebody doing an impression of James Dean, to John Goodman himself, stealing every scene he is in, as a legendary asshole.
And that's only half, if that, of the great character actor turns to be found here.
But it really is the sensitive and raw performance by Oscar Isaac that brings Llewyn to life. Beneath his long-suffering manner is the visibly boiling rage fueled by his self-loathing; beneath the pat jokes he makes at his own expense are ugly truths. After Llewyn has dragged himself by foot and by strangers' kindness through the Illinois snow to Chicago, he sits down with a folk music poo-bah at what I presume to be a famous folk music venue, and he is asked to play a song of his choice from his vanishly unsuccessful new album, the titular Inside Llewyn Davis. When he's done, the man suggests that he reunite with his former partner, because Llewyn is just not solo material. In my very favorite read of the film, Llewyn responds, simply, "That's good advice."
His partner committed suicide.
P.S.: But that Dylan "cameo"? That was beneath the film, and beneath everybody involved with it. I get your movie, I got your movie, really, and I did not need that bit of egregious anti-subtlety.