Review: Inside Llewyn Davis
PLOT: In 1961 New York, a down-on-his-luck folksinger attempts to revive his dwindling career while saddled with a stray cat and the news he might be the father of his friend's wife.
REVIEW: Folksinger with a cat. Oscar Isaac's Llewyn Davis is described as such by an arrogant blowhard played by John Goodman at one point during INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS because that is, in fact what he is when the two men's paths cross. That is all he is, actually, because Davis has little else going for him: his desire to continue following his passion and his uncharacteristic (if brief) need to protect a stray cat. We only know him for about a week of his life, but we can surmise that with Llewyn Davis the passion will always remain, but the protectiveness is an aberration, because as is the case with many deeply flawed characters created by writer-directors The Coen Brothers, he's equal parts cynic and romantic, at once nostalgic about his world and cognizant it can, and probably will, bite him on the back at any moment.
The Coen Brothers can do cynical in their sleep, but nailing the nostalgic part isn't always their specialty, but INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS reveals itself to be the filmmakers' most sentimental and melancholic work, imbued with the haunted misery of its protagonist. It's also a touching tribute to the early 60s folk scene, with a thoroughly beautiful soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett, who last collaborated with the Coens on O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coens flawlessly recreate the mellow atmosphere of the Greenwich Village coffeehouses where struggling acts sought to make their art, with gorgeous cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel adding a barely perceptual ethereal glow to Davis' sad tale.
Davis is a self-described mess, having been that way since the suicide of his singing partner years prior. Trying to make it as a solo act is a tough feat, especially since despite his lovely voice he doesn't have the charisma or charm to make it alone in front of the crowd. And though he's determined to persevere, his failure has perhaps already destined, and the bitterness he displays indicates he already knows it. Isaac is splendid in the role, his big eyes hint at a hapless dreamer unprepared for the cruel world, yet at any moment Davis can conjure a snob's malice, striking out like a rattlesnake at the sincere people he encounters, like the kindly neighbor who deigns to sing along with one of his songs. Of course, he'll take a night or two on your couch if you can spare it; gratitude is not his forte, but his neediness knows no bounds.
The Coens' don't sugarcoat their lead nor the sad state of affairs he finds himself in, as can be expected, and this film won't please you optimists and true believers. The directors know better than anyone that happy endings rarely come to fruition, but more often than not they see the dark, dismal humor in life's way of screwing you over. Yet this is not misanthropic on the Coens' part, at least not in this instance: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is a beautiful movie - it's just "beautiful" done the Coen Brothers way.
The events we witness during this particular week of Davis' life are at turns mundane and considerable. He loses a neighbor's cat and miraculously retrieves him in the middle of a crowded street, only to discover it's not the same cat. He gets a gig working alongside his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) on a goofy novelty song, but he's also just found out that Jim's wife and musical partner Jean (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant and thinks the child is his (not that they're romantic at the moment; Jean's caustic attitude toward Llewyn borders on hatred). He finds the opportunity to travel to Chicago to perform for super producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) but must travel there with a surly, drug-addicted musician (Goodman) and a mysterious, brooding young man (Garrett Hedlund); their extended trip reveals little about any of them and the experience is ultimately trivial. When Davis' big moment arrives and things appear as though they could turn around, the anticlimax is so very Coen Brothers, who have always excelled at culminating things on a sardonically meek note.
But if Davis' journey is not exactly that of Ulysses', the Coens' ability to make every scene hum with a world-weary, deadpan humor enlivens his every encounter and defeat. Naturally, the brothers populate INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS with wonderfully unique supporting characters and have cast the roles perfectly; it's not just the John Goodmans and Justin Timberlakes that resonate, but the Ethan Phillips' and Stark Sands'. It's feasible that no one casts a film as well as the Coens, who rarely, if ever, hit a false note with their performers. The side characters' moments are fittingly brief, as this is indeed the story of Llewyn Davis, but every face in the ensemble is the right one.
I'm prone to taking notes during screenings; I like to jot down descriptions of scenes and lines of dialogue, moments that strike me - it just helps with the impending review. I barely took any during INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, which is testament to how absorbing the film is. I wrote down a couple of things very early on, then stopped after jotting down "I love it already", which may have been around the 10 minute mark. Sometimes a movie simply has a captivating power, even if it's a subtle power, that transfixes you, enfolds you. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is like that.