Review

"Inside Llewyn Davis" never gets inside its subject

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJanuary 9, 2014 

  • “Inside Llewyn Davis”

    B- Cast: Oscar Isaacs, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman

    Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

    Length: 1 hour, 45 minutes

    Rating: R (language including some sexual references)

    Theaters: events.triangle.com/movies

“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens on a puzzling note, showing Oscar Isaac’s titular folksinger onstage at a Greenwich Village nightspot before getting a savage post-gig beating for reasons unknown. The film goes on to recount a grim week in our hero’s life and then cycles back around to showing that same beatdown – at which point it’s kind of hard not to conclude that the guy kind of had it coming.

While there’s a lot to like about this darkly comic film, it’s also hard to get past the central character’s fundamental unlikability. Sure, the best artists are often self-centered, not terribly pleasant people. That definitely goes for Llewyn Davis, a young man navigating New York’s nightclub circuit during the city’s folk revival. Even so, you’ve got to be given a reason to care about what happens to someone, and that’s where “Inside Llewyn Davis” falls woefully short.

Set in the winter of 1961, the film makes repeated nods to actual history. The washed-out wintertime landscape looks like the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” come to life. “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a novelty space-race knockoff Davis records with Justin Timberlake, is derived from a number of period novelty hits going back to 1960’s “Mr. Custer.” And Davis’ album cover is almost identical to 1963’s “Inside Dave Van Ronk” (whose posthumous 2005 memoir “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” was one of this film’s inspirations).

Musically, “Inside Llewyn Davis” has much to recommend it. Credit for that goes to music supervisor T Bone Burnett, who worked similar magic on the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Isaac also shines in a series of beautifully rendered performances that are enigmatic and dark.

But those performances seem increasingly out of sync with Isaac’s offstage ineptitude, and the gap between them creates a tone as monochromatically bleak as the winter weather the film depicts. Pretty much everyone is shown to be slow-witted, mean or both – especially Carey Mulligan’s Jean, the romantic and duet partner of Timberlake’s Jim. Pregnant and desperate after a fling with Davis, she plays a single shrewish note to exhaustion.

Humanity’s dark side is familiar territory for the Coens, but their films usually have someone with at least a glimmer of positivity about them. Davis certainly is in a tough spot, struggling with the aftermath of his former duet partner’s suicide (an obviously seminal event that goes unexplained). He’s chronically broke, reduced to couch-surfing across New York’s boroughs and stuck with a cat he didn’t want (a wandering beast named Ulysses, in a nod to the Coens’ ongoing fixation with “The Odyssey”). Maybe that’s supposed to make up for some of the less-than-honorable things Davis does regarding that cat, but animal lovers probably won’t let him off the hook.

As the movie unfolds, Davis consistently undermines himself both as an artist and a person, seemingly incapable of making the right decision about anything.

This being the Coen Brothers, there are some tragicomic laughs, but they’re outnumbered by cringe-worthy moments. Davis is as careless with his own talent as he is with other people’s feelings, never having a kind word for his peers even when they do him favors. He rewards kindness with tantrums, wears his jealousy on his sleeve and heckles an obviously terrified woman to tears during her first New York performance. No one in “Inside Llewyn Davis” seems to be enjoying themselves, and maybe that era wasn’t a barrel of laughs. But it’s also hard to believe it was this dull and joyless.

While Davis clings to the notion that he has too much integrity to compromise, the portrait that emerges is of a sad also-ran who doesn’t really deserve better. At one point, Davis sneers that a peer is being “careerist.” Stubbornness aside, however, he seems as careerist as anyone else. The only time Davis ever verbalizes what music means to him is to say it’s “how I pay the rent.” He’s talented, but whatever he hopes to get out of music beyond the ability to rent a hypothetical apartment remains a mystery.

Probably the most depressing thing about “Inside Llewyn Davis” is that its subject never really had a chance. But it didn’t have to be quite this dark, either. As Townes Van Zandt once put it, there ain’t no dark ’til something shines.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or newsobserver.com/OnTheBeat

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