I know people like Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). For them, the world is an inhospitable place. They put themselves out there with their art, whatever it might be, and are lucky if they get a smattering of applause in return. But that isn’t what Llewyn wants. He wants money. He wants money for rent and a winter coat and enough space so that he can do what he does and nobody interferes with him. There’s probably a desire to entertain, to connect, to be appreciated down inside. But that connection has to be real. Working is working, but if you want to be somebody, the kind of person you want to be, you have to create something that carries a piece of you. That’s art. So what the hell are those guys doing over there? And why don’t they look tired?
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) tells the story of a struggling folk singer in early 60’s New York City. From Joel and Ethan Coen, it is perhaps the least mannered film they’ve made and one of the few where someone is not brutally shot or stabbed or eviscerated in a wood chipper. That makes it very tempting to call this a “personal” film, but that’s idle speculation. In any case, how un-mannered is it to pull out a guitar and sing a lovely folk tune? More interesting to me is how this movie will affect the general audience. Surely the Oscar buzz is going to bring in some folks who hear this charming music and like the cut of Oscar Isaac‘s jib who aren’t attracted to the rest of the Coen oeuvre. So will these people who like The Civil Wars or Mumford & Sons and maybe enjoy some others in the modern folk scene–Marcus Mumford credited on some of the tracks–be able to discern the pretenders from the real artists? Or is that simply a snob’s judgment based solely upon the appearance of struggle and pain? Maybe that makes all the difference.
There was a little bit of struggling on my part as to whether I’d let myself enjoy the music with the depth to which it surely aspires. The thing about 1960’s New York City is that, with the exception of the cars on the road, it looks a great deal like 2010’s New York City. Corduroy jackets with big scarfs and tight pants are very much en vogue and if they had electric cigarettes, you surely would have thought you could catch these acts downtown tonight. I suppose you’d have to take a cab over to the other side of the island since the village has too many artisan something-or-others to maintain a dingy open-mic venue. What made me give up the fight was the excellent performance–both voice and action–from Oscar Isaac. The man can sing and his unaffected earnestness is infectious.
How else can you explain the unquestioned support I gave this frankly selfish guy? Probably because his situation is so believable. Whatever tastes may be, Llewyn’s talent is undeniable and his failure to gain recognition is understandably frustrating. That quality can probably bring in even those who aren’t particularly musical or interested in the “starving artist” at the center of the story. You don’t have to have tried to pick up a guitar to understand what it is to be or feel unappreciated. All you need is a frustrated ambition. There’s plenty of that. It happens every day.
Llewyn is as much the center of the film as he is the central focus of his own universe. So some excellent performances from the likes of Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, and F. Murray Abraham are brief and to a point. Yet, for their brevity, I feel like each character’s point drove home. That’s kind of a specialty of the Coen brothers, weaving in characters that have a whole life behind them but only touch on the main character’s journey. The trip Llewyn goes on with the old Jazz man played by Goodman is like a condensed, poignant version of Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987). This focus on Llewyn is absolutely perfect because it is rigidly attached to his perspective. If there’s one thing that makes this the kind of Oscar-winning prestige film, it’s that quality. It isn’t overly funny or grand in scale or brutally personal, but it is supremely crafted and thoroughly enjoyable.
A word on the soundtrack. Charmed.
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