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Entries in Inside Llewyn Davis [2013] (1)


Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

A Serious Artist

At a party last week, someone asked me what my favorite film of the year is. Without hesitation (and in a voice that I hope didn't sound as pretentious as the words look on my screen), I said, "My head is with 12 Years a Slave, but my heart belongs to Inside Llewyn Davis". The distinction is important: while Steve McQueen's masterful pre-Civil War drama is gorgeous, moving, and important, I've watched Joel and Ethan Coen's harsh portrait of an early 60s folk singer three times in the last five weeks.

Set in Greenwich Village, the movie follows one of cinema's least likable protagonists. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a joyless, condescending snob who sleeps with the girlfriend of what passes for his best friend (Carey Mulligan as Jean and Justin Timberlake as Jim, respectively) and abuses the hospitality of hip NYU professor Mitch Gorfein (Ethan Phillips) and his wife, Lillian (Robin Bartlett). He's also an extremely gifted guitar player and folk vocalist, who, in the wake of his singing partner's death, has lost his path to success and, apparently, his anchor to happiness.

When I first saw Inside Llewyn Davis, I thought it was a parallel story to the Coens' A Serious Man: both films are set in the same era, and both feature men so frustrated at where they've ended up that they burst at the seams for something greater to happen to them. By all societal measures, Larry Gopnik and Llewyn Davis have done everything they should have to become successful and happy. But something within them makes that impossible. It could be a kind of reverse-polarity personality magnet that makes one man a doormat (Gopnik) and another a creep who adult-acting adults merely tolerate.

Oddly, this movie is more like It's a Wonderful Life. We drop in on Davis during what should very well be his last week on Earth--but in this dark mirror-universe, he appears determined to make everyone around him wish he'd never been born. He gets Jean pregnant; mocks an earnest army private (Stark Sands) who shows signs of becoming a successful performer; chastises his agent (Jerry Grayson) for not miraculously making his new solo album a hit; and loses the Gorfeins' cat. He chases it all over town, not out of altruism, perhaps, but because it's his re-admission ticket to a warm bed and food.

Unlike George Bailey, Davis is too stubborn and entitled to kill himself. From a certain point of view, he's right to hang in there. His music is absolutely beautiful and soulful, and belies the vacant spirit of the man who performs it. Davis wears the armor of the "pure artist", and scolds Jean for her "careerist", "square" desire to become just successful enough to someday finance a quiet, suburban life with Jim. In truth, we only ever see Davis griping about money and begging for elusive fame--making him no better than the sell-out ghouls he imagines everyone else to be. If there is a kooky angel watching over him, the lesson he might be trying to teach Davis is that natural and practiced ability are only a small component of success; the other keys are taking the time to enjoy the creative process, and being good to others--as well as to ourselves.

Indeed, the Coen Brothers plant sign-posts everywhere in this film. The universe offers path after path after path, each with clear destinations set out for him. In Jim and Jean are the security of "selling out", which looks a lot like seizing opportunities; forming solid, professional relationships; and having fun along the way. In Al Cody (Adam Driver), a fellow musician who works with Jim, he sees another struggling performer with an unsuccessful solo album under his belt--but one whose positivity and genuine belief in music as its own reward leaves him open to bigger things.

On the darker side of the coin is Roland Turner (John Goodman), an unpleasant traveling musician with whom Davis hitches a ride to Chicago. Turner weaves beautiful insult tapestries that all seem to wrap around a central theme of no one appreciating his genius. He's old, crippled, and unknown, but has roped at least one person into driving him across the country to perform in dives--the would-be beat hero Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). In Chicago, Davis auditions for renowned club owner/agent Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), who gives him pointers that sound, again, an awful lot like selling out. Even after all he's been through, Davis would rather blame the industry for making him give up music altogether than try something that breaks his preconceived mental mold of the tortured artist.

For as unsavory a character as Llewyn Davis is, I couldn't take my eyes off Oscar Isaac. Though his character messes up time and again, there's something so compelling about his humor, disposition, and incredible voice that made me root for him from beginning to end. I can't think of anyone else who could have played this role. The rest of the cast is uniformly great--except, maybe, for Mulligan, who seems to have been directed to be hysterically bitter and cartoonish in her resentment towards Davis. The Coens and their actors succeed in creating a universe full of people whom we meet briefly, but whose stories and personalities make us want to follow them into entirely different pictures.

Luckily, we're stuck with this one, which, as shot by Bruno Delbonnel, has the buttery, nostalgic haze of what we all imagine the coffee-and-cigarettes scene of 60s New York to have been like. It's hard to pinpoint exactly how he accomplishes this feat, but the winter exteriors feel so cold that I wanted to reach for my jacket. Conversely, the interiors feel almost-cozy, as if we're in a constant state of just having come in from a blizzard.

We're guided into this lullaby world by a series of brilliant songs, produced by the Coens and T Bone Burnett. The film features several musical numbers that are all organic to the story and very, very moving. Even the purposely kitsch-y "Please Mr. Kennedy" is a fun, hummable tune that will likely bounce around your skull for weeks. Best yet, each of the film's tunes were performed live, on-set, by the actors, who acquit themselves brilliantly. Marcus Mumford, of Mumford and Sons, duetted with Isaac on a couple of tracks, acting as Davis' dearly departed partner, and I challenge anyone to not instantly purchase this soundtrack upon leaving the theatre, based on the strength of "Fare Thee Well" alone (not a sales pitch, just a prediction).

As with most Coen Brothers films, Inside Llewyn Davis demands repeat viewings and scrutiny. As you can probably tell, I'm still working out my interpretation of their story's meaning--even after having watched it obsessively three times. Please, don't let my high-minded breakdown and hypotheses keep you from enjoying one of the year's most immersive movies. Despite its grim subject matter and hard-to-like hero, this picture is truly uplifting and alive.