Ethan and Joel Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).
It’s not much of a full disclosure to admit to being a fan of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen; so are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of moviegoers around the globe. The Coen brothers are arguably, or even better, unarguably, the most prominent, innovative and independent directorial duo in U.S. film-making since the still-nascent 21st century began a decade-and-a-half ago.
It’s also the case that I’m one of those Coen brothers fans who prefers their self-crafted tales — The Big Lebowski (1998) or A Serious Man (2009) — to their picture-perfect adaptations, such as the Academy Award-winning version of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007) or the remake of True Grit (2010). So, their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), an original portrait of New York’s Greenwich Village folksong scene, circa 1961, ought to be pretty much made for people like me.
The film’s eponymous protagonist, Llewyn Davis, is partially based on the folksinger Dave Van Ronk, and played by Oscar Isaac with some of the bottled-up intensity and looks of a younger Al Pacino. Llewyn is the Coen brothers’ way of demonstrating once more that it’s not just nice guys who finish last; sometimes it’s not-so-nice-guys who also finish somewhere toward the back of the pack, or in a back-alley being booted in the ribs by a justifiably outraged near-stranger (in this case, the angry husband of an innocent down-home singer whom Llewyn felt the need to heckle during her hapless performance).
Inside Llewyn Davis is a wintry account of the folk-music business — and “business” may be part of its problem (as I’ll explain in a minute). “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” Llewyn tells the audience during his set in the smoky Gaslight tavern in Greenwich Village. That’s vague enough to frame Llewyn’s full-length rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (a.k.a. “I Been All Around This World”) that opens this melancholy chanson of a movie. Oh, says this lament of the condemned, “I’ll be dead and gone / wouldn’t mind the hangin’ / but the layin’ in the grave so long / poor boy… I been all around this world” — the ironic sting in the tail of this tune is that “this world” encompasses little more than a backwoods patch of Arkansas.
Oscar Isaac, as various critics have noted, is himself a talented tenor, and much hangs on the fact that his character, Llewyn, is also a competent, quite-good-but-not-great artist — one of the film’s themes is the difference between passable talent and the cosmic spark, or even the cosmic ka-ching! So was, apparently, Dave Van Ronk, whose truncated singing career wasn’t helped by the arrival of a reedy-voiced genius named Bob Dylan. But, as critic A.O. Scott, puts it, “in any case, this is not a biopic, it’s a Coen brothers movie, which is to say a brilliant magpie’s nest of surrealism, period detail and pop-culture scholarship. To put it another way, it’s a folk tale.” (A.O. Scott, “Melancholy Odyssey Through the Folk Scene,” New York Times, Dec. 5, 2013.)
As a folk tale, Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t have much of a tale, nor much of a hero, nor much of an “inside,” other than the gritty, realistic details of the inside of the music business. This story of a few meandering days in the life of a down-and-out musician presents a protagonist who, apart from some moments with a guitar in hand, is a less than likeable guy. There’s a tendency among critics to view this kind of film as an “odyssey” (one critic dubs the Coen brothers’ version of the genre an “idiodyssey”), but just because the characters wander around a bit, or there’s a cat named Ulysses, doesn’t make it an Homeric epic.
Llewyn is a more or less homeless dude who carelessly lets the cat get out of the apartment where he’s cadging a bed for the night, and who carelessly impregnates women with whom he’s cadging a night. The pregnant woman in the immediate instance is fellow folksinger Jean, played against type by Carey Mulligan, who spends most of her scenes swearing a blue streak. She’s the girlfriend of her singing partner, Jim (Justin Timberlake), and Llewyn is one of those alleged friends who makes enemies unnecessary. She tells Llewyn, “You’re like King Midas’s idiot brother,” and supplies an extended scatological explanation of how her potential co-parent turns everything into dung. Llewyn duly heads off in the direction of the neighbourhood abortionist to set up an appointment — not for the first time. His attempted, but not quite successful, rescue of the cat may be his most redeeming gesture in the story.
So, we’ve got a protagonist who’s wearing out his welcome almost everywhere, and who has an undisputed talent for pissing off just about everybody. There’s also his working-class single-mother sister to whom he condescends, and his taciturn old mariner of a dad, mutely living out his time in the bleak seafarers’ retirement home. To make matters more morose, Llewyn was part of a buddy team that cranked out one Simon-and-Garfunkel-ish album, appropriately titled “If I Had Wings,” before Llewyn’s singing partner, Mike, jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New York. I can’t remember if it’s ever made clear why Mike committed suicide (I don’t think so), but in any case Llewyn’s career as a solo act is definitely floundering.
It’s in the name of that career that Llewyn makes a grim road trip to Chicago, in the company of a heroin-shooting jazz musician (a virtuoso John Goodman performance) and a Beat Generation poetry-spouting driver named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). Once there, Llewyn does a one-on-one audition for music impressario Albert “Bud” Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Grossman hears Llewyn out and then impeccably delivers what is probably the punchline judgment of the film, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” The real-life Grossman was busy that year putting together the Peter, Paul and Mary trio before going on to manage such later stars as Bob Dylan and Janice Joplin. About the only thing missing here is the bottle of whiskey and the self-administered gun shot — oh wait, that’s not the folkie singalong, that’s the Country & Western trailer park.
What Inside Llewyn Davis has, despite a protagonist who’s hard to care about, is a series of great performances by some of the Coens’ favourite actors. The Upper West Side academic couple, Mitch (Ethan Phillips) and Lillian Gorfein (Robin Bartlett), straight out of a Woody Allen outtake, always have an extra bed for their misbehaving folksinger pal; their marmalade feline named Ulysses does a credible turn, too; and Goodman, F. Murray Abraham, Hedlund and a half dozen others never miss a beat. In fact, I’m afraid this is one of those films where the sum of its parts add up to less than the array of its brilliant cameos.
People who like Inside Llewyn Davis, and there are a lot of them, not to mention a legion of enthusiastic critics who have put the film on a score of Top Ten lists and complained tartly about its virtual snubbing by the Academy Awards, emphasize what they see as the authenticity of it. They read Llewyn as a guy who refuses to compromise or “sell” himself in the name of commercialism, and who pays the price for sticking to his authentic artistic values. Proponents of the movie find the portrait of the folk scene to be one of unvarnished realism, and they find the music, arranged by T Bone Burnett and presented in complete renditions, authentically moving, and a sign of the film’s integrity. Burnett is the music guru who handled the soundtrack for the Coens’ earlier O, Brother, Where Are Thou? (2000).
“Yet something in the movie fails to grip,” critic Anthony Lane astutely observes, “and it has to do with the hero… as though to compensate for this lack of energy at the core, the Coens plump up their peripheral figures… though before long we return to the gloom of Llewyn. He’s such a grouch and an ingrate and so allergic to human sympathy, that, like his friends, we can’t always be bothered to extend it.” (Anthony Lane, “It’s Cold Outside,” New Yorker, Dec. 9, 2013.)
That gets pretty close to what goes wrong with Inside Llewyn Davis, but I think it may go beyond the problem of a protagonist you can’t root for. The movie indeed suffers from some of the same flaws as its protagonist. It’s not awful, it’s just not great. It certainly stands in contrast to Coen brother masterpieces like A Serious Man, where they turn what seems like a small-scale growng up Jewish in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the mid-1960 tale into a kind of hilarious Biblical mock-epic based on their send-up reading of the Book of Job. There, you can practically feel the thumb of God crushing his creations; here, there’s just fingers plucking the strings.
What you don’t find much of inside or outside of Llewyn Davis is the Geist in the Zeitgeist. The Coens opt to focus, perhaps justifiably enough, on the grubby aspects of the folk music business: indifferent booking agents in rabbit-warren offices, a box of unsold one-shot albums lugged around by its performer, borrowed couches in cramped apartments, and those smoke-filled clubs and coffee houses. The film is located at the threshhold moment just before the appearance of artists like Bob Dylan (at film’s end a Dylan-like performer in the background takes the stage).
But there’s very little sense that “the answer, my friend / is blowin’ in the wind,” or that we’re moving into the activism of the 1960s, of which the folk scene will be one important strand in the soundtrack. There’s also little sense that the folk repertoire is more than traditional sea-chanties and field-and-prison laments. The crucial political element of the folk movement is almost completely invisible here — no hint of the late Pete Seeger (who died last month at the ripe age of 94, still campaigning and organizing). No sound of, speaking of legendary organizers, “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night / alive as you or I”; none of the Woodie Guthrie rude democratic legacy of the depression: “This Land is Your Land… / this land was made for you and me.” (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out YouTube for Seeger and Bruce Springfield’s rendition of the Guthrie anthem, performed before several hundred thousand people gathered around the Washington National Mall, at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.) Watching the Coen brothers’ slice of a half-century ago, you’d have little idea that the civil rights movement is underway, or that feminism, environmentalism, gay rights, a peace movement and the Beatles are just around the corner.
Of course, I’m not calling for a kumbaya moment, and gauging the political tenor of the times is not really what the Coen brothers do. But if you’re making an historical film of an era in which an instant of political and social hope can be glimpsed, it’s a constricted vision that doesn’t catch that glimpse.
Berlin, Feb. 5, 2014