Movie review: Inside Llewyn Davis

(image via impawards.com)
(image via impawards.com)

 

“Everything you touch turns to shit. [You’re] like King Midas’s idiot brother.”

This rather pithy character summation, uttered by Llewyn Davis’s (Oscar Isaac) one time married lover (and wife of close friend Jim played by Justin Timberlake) Jean (Carey Mulligan) after another ill-advised life decision by the aspiring 60s folk musician has left her pregnant and in need of a discreet abortion, neatly sums up the problems faced by him on a seemingly daily basis.

He is, as Jean correctly points out, the failings of those around him notwithstanding, his own worst enemy.

But tempting though it is to view the titular character in the latest Coen Brothers loving homage to America’s vast and beautiful musical heritage, in this case the flourishing of folk music in the 1950s and early 1960s, as some sort of ill-focused manifest failure, he is at heart simply a man of singular, one could say stubborn, vision trying to achieve his creative dream.

That he isn’t quite grasping the brass ring, like so many other aspiring singers before, during and after his time on the musical scene, is an incontestable fact.

But isn’t for want of trying or for the love of his craft.

Largely his failure to make it to the bright lights of Bud Grossman’s (F. Murray Abraham) famed folk club Gate of Horn in Chicago, the mecca for up and coming folk artists – not for want of trying of course; he plays for Grossman who coldly dismisses him as a sign-able solo artist by bluntly saying “I don’t see a lot of money here” – has much to do with his emotional hobbling and poor planning as a lack of favourable circumstances and a less than warm-and-fuzzy personality.

 

Llewyn Davis is a man who must depend on the kindness of others while he pursues his dream of becoming a famous folk music artist (image via newyorker.com)
Llewyn Davis is a man who must depend on the kindness of others while he pursues his dream of becoming a famous folk music artist (image via llewyndavis.com photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC)

 

His dogged persistence in pursuing his dream of being a recognisable household name with his own home (instead of a rotating cast of his friends’ couches), fashionable, warm clothes (his lack of appropriate winter clothing is a recurring theme) and his own cat (or no cat at all, a reference to his two furry co-stars of sorts in the film) makes sense to anyone who ever pursued a much-cherished dream of any kind.

 

While logic and the cold, sensible hand of economic rationality suggests he should give it up and return to a career in the merchant marines, a line of vastly scaled down ambition championed by his unsupportive sister Joy (Jean Serralles), and the suicide death of his one time duo partner Tim, has sapped his ability to cope with the vicissitudes of the long road to fame or its crueller cousin obscurity, he resists and plows on.

And in that respect, the Coen Brothers have fashioned quite a sympathetic protagonist, a man who resonates with a readily recognisable need to succeed at doing what he’s loved since he was eight years old and recorded a single which his sister unceremoniously throws away after another of their interminable fights.

 

The more populist "Please Mr Kennedy" is recorded by Llewyn Davis, friend Jim Berkey and Al Cody in what some might consider a sell-out but what Davis sees as a way to earn much needed, if short term, income ((image via llewyndavis.com photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC)
The more populist “Please Mr Kennedy” is recorded by Llewyn Davis, friend Jim Berkey and Al Cody in what some might consider a sell-out but what Davis sees as a way to earn much needed, if short term, income (image via llewyndavis.com photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC)

 

Davis is racing after the sort of opportunity that seems to come easily to other up-and comers like the perpetually perky and unfailingly polite Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) and yes Bob Dylan (played by Benjamin Pike) glimpsed in passing at the Gaslight Cafe, a hub of sorts for folk music wanna-bes (and Davis’s second home) and his ceaseless ambition and resultant sacrifices make sense.

He may be irascible at times, prone to fights with close friends such as the long-suffering but ever warm Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) and possessed of poor decision-making skills, but he is never less than ardently ambitious in the best possible way and you feel the pain of each and every one of his many setbacks.

Granted there isn’t a lot of character development but I don’t think that’s what the Coen Brothers were aiming for.

David functions much more effectively as a man who only gives up his dream, or attempts to anyway, when he is finally emotionally spent and not when he comes to believe his pursuit of a music career is fruitless (which naturally never happens).

In common with many people single-mindedly pursuing the idea of something, he brushes off the bizarre road trips to Chicago (with John Goodman in fine form as a heroin-addicted has-been jazz singer with attitude Roland Turner), the incompetent management of Mel Novokiff (Jerry Grayson) and the signing of royalties (from a song recorded with Jim and Al Cody played beautifully by Adam Driver) as annoying impediments, not life lessons.

 

Jean and Jim Berkey provide friendship - warm in Jim's case; bitterly resentful in Jean's - a couch to sleep on and companionship on the stalled way to the top (image via insidellewyndavis.com Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC)
Jean and Jim Berkey provide friendship – warm in Jim’s case; bitterly resentful in Jean’s – a couch to sleep on and companionship on the stalled way to the top (image via insidellewyndavis.com Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC)

 

This bleakness of the human spirit is offset beautifully by the magnificent array of songs the Coen Brothers, who seeking to authentically re-create the look, spirit and sound of the early ’60s folk scene in New York, have assembled, an ode to their love of Americana in all its myriad forms.

They are in the sort of fine form that made 2000’s O Brother Where Art Thou? such an inestimable pleasure (even for those of us not previously enamoured of early folksy Americana), with each song sung live by the actors themselves in one, authentic-sounding take.

In that sense Inside Llewyn Davis functions as a musical of sorts, with each song providing, if not continuing narrative exposition, then at least a contextual background for the actions of the protagonist and those he cherishes and clashes with in equal measure.

No doubt there will be some frustrated by Davis’s failing to ascend some redeeming arc to nobler purpose or greater self-awareness  but I found him to be as real and relatable as everything else in the Coen Brothers gloriously rich and warm and surprisingly emotional tribute to the pursuit of often Don Quixotic-like dreams (and cats).

 

 

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