Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2013)

When Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) tells Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) that he doesn’t connect with people, the manager of influential Chicago folk music club Gate of Horn is evaluating him as a performer.  The assessment could just as well apply to the singer’s interpersonal relationships, though. Llewyn tends to approach the world as if it owes him for gracing everyone with his presence and talent.  He’s perpetually in need of a couch to crash on, and he doesn’t think twice about asking his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) to lend him money to terminate another pregnancy he may be responsible for.  Never mind that the unnamed woman wanting an abortion is Jim’s girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan).

Despite his sour disposition and frequent impositions,  Llewyn continues to be treated generously, which suggests people believe he deserves their help even if he takes it for granted and risks alienating his friends and acquaintances in the Greenwich Village folk scene.  Perhaps it means that while he behaves like a jerk now, he didn’t always, or not to this degree.  His current career struggles and the way his musical partnership was severed explain why he’s mired in a funk and why people may be willing to cut him some slack.  Set during a blustery February 1961, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS externalizes Llewyn’s depression.  Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel swabs the singer’s environment in gray and often suggests occupying a dark space for enduring Job-like trials.  

Co-writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen merge O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? and A SERIOUS MAN into INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS’ bleak but comic musical journey with an impeccable soundtrack.  Structured like a song in the round, Llewyn’s odyssey takes a circular shape with which he’s out of sync.  He doesn’t come in at the proper place and stumbles to find the appropriate exit point to break the cycle and rejoin where he should.  Although he can anticipate what’s coming, Llewyn is doomed to remain in the loop at the wrong measure.

Isaac isn’t pressed to mold Llewyn into someone appealing to have around, yet his apparent neediness attracts empathy despite his surly and defeated bearing.  Misery loves company, and he’s the kind of person who can be comforting to have around when everyone is having a rough time of it.  If and when others in Llewyn’s circle break through, something that is likely closer than the characters suspect, he’s also one they’ll leave behind because his unfulfilled high self-regard and standards will make him intolerable to be near.  Llewyn isn’t chasing professional success as much as he’s trying to escape himself, and he’d rather decry what he perceives as selling out than to compromise the integrity of his art.

The cool emotional tone of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS benefits from the humor the supporting cast generates.  Adam Driver’s gut-busting backing vocals to novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy” represent everything Llewyn resists.  John Goodman’s scornful jazz man, who derides the inferiority of a suicidal man’s leaping spot, indicates what Llewyn’s future could be if he doesn’t change course.  Mulligan’s brittleness and seething anger toward Llewyn produce a funny inversion of the sweet harmonizer she is on stage with her boyfriend.  Timberlake doesn’t play his moments for laughs but does well displaying the decency and heart that Llewyn resists in himself.

Although the protagonist appears unable to tap any reserves of affection, the Coens present his story as a common, tragic tale with a lot of compassion.  For filmmakers often accused (and wrongly so) of being snide, this prickly comedy-drama demonstrates that there’s more below than surface to discover if one’s willing to take a closer look.

Grade: A

No comments:

Post a Comment