Posted Friday, December 20th 2013 @ 8am
Watching the new Coen brothers comedy/drama Inside Llewyn Davis is an odd experience. It’s like starting a book somewhere around chapter five, reading about a hundred random pages, and then putting it down, even though there are several more chapters still to go. You never quite a get a foothold on what’s happening.
The film is a few days in the life of a New York folk singer, the title character, who wanders around Greenwich Village looking to get his solo career off the ground and making a mess of it. It’s also the title of his solo album, the one no one’s buying. Davis was previously one half of a duo, but his partner killed himself when he jumped off the George Washington Bridge leaving Davis holding the guitar and several hundred copies of their album; Timlin & Davis sing If We Had Wings.
The Coen’s make no attempt to make Davis the least bit likable. The young man desires success but appears to derail it with a confrontational manner that would alienate anyone, and it does. The biggest issue with the film is this; plenty of things happen, but there’s no plot to drive. And to call it a character driven film isn’t accurate either; it’s a sequence of events that never fully conclude, like someone who tells you a joke but walks away before the punch line then returns to tell you another one, then walks away again.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few jewels buried among the obstacles Davis faces. Carey Mulligans’ perpetually angry and foul-mouthed Jean, a woman that might or might not be pregnant with Davis’ child, is fun to observe if only because it’s so opposite to how we often see her. John Goodman’s fifteen minutes of screen time as Roland Turner, a crippled blues man sharing a car with Davis on their way to Chicago, is also engaging in a manner that borders on dangerous. When Davis and Turner argue in the car regarding Turner’s walking cane, the conversation is funny only because there’s the anticipation that one of them might actually act on their threats.
But like a lengthy folk song that won’t quit, the film rambles on, and Davis’ self-destructive manner doesn’t make it any easier to take. When Mulligan’s Jean tries to have a serious talk with Davis about where he’s heading in life she asks, “Do you think of the future?” Even though he knows what she’s asking, he responds with, “The future? You mean floating cars, hotels on the moon?” It’s a wonder he has any friends at all.
Plus, what makes the film further annoying is the habit of showing us something that looks as though it’s is on the verge of telling us something potentially profound. When Davis sits in the bathroom of a public toilet he reads the scribbles on the walls left by previous occupants. He fixates on the phrase What Are You Doing. The camera lingers long enough for us to not only read the question several times, but also to make us think that maybe it’s a question the great universe is presenting to Davis in order for him to rethink his status. Only it doesn’t. There’s also a moment when Davis passes a movie poster in the high street of the Walt Disney live action adventure The Incredible Journey, the story of two dogs and a cat who make a lengthy trek across the country to find their owners. Davis stares at the poster. Maybe it’s talking to him, reflecting his own adventure, maybe not. And maybe it’s just another sardonic joke the Coens are playing on us. After all, Inside Llewyn Davis takes place in 1961, The Incredible Journey wasn’t released until 1963.
The musical moments are good, and we’re given the pleasure of enjoying songs in their entirety. The cast did their own singing, and it’s impressive, particularly Oscar Isaac as Davis who when he plays guitar and sings at auditions or recording sessions makes you wonder why no one has signed him up. Plus, the film’s cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel consists of superbly composed shots that remain on screen long enough for us to savor the well framed image before cutting away. It’s a genuine pleasure to watch.
But by the end of the film not a lot has concluded, though there is one thing we learn. Inside Llewyn Davis begins with a late night, backyard beating where the singer is knocked senseless to the ground by a tall stranger with a southern drawl, a Coen favorite, who calls the singer “Funny boy.” The film backtracks on itself so that by the end we see the beating again, only this time we understand why. And to be honest, he deserved it.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 105 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)