Tuesday, January 14

REVIEW: Inside Llewyn Davis

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
2013 Musical Drama
1 hour 44 minutes
From CBS Films

Oscar Isaac
Carey Mulligan
John Goodman
Justin Timberlake
Garrett Hedlund
Ethan Phillips
Robin Bartlett

The first thing to know is that this is a Coen brothers' film.  Pretty much all else falls into place once you wrap your head around that thought.  This film would have a different look and feel to it if Quentin Tarantino wrestled control of it and still another look if Marty Scorcese presented it.  This story of a folk singer trying to make a go of it in 1961, had it been done by George Cukor, would have worked in a lot of pretty girls and had a 30-piece MGM orchestra backing the songs.  But it's the Coens.

I am drawn to their films (Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Oh Brother, Where Are Thou?, No Country for Old Men) because they are independent filmmakers who, while they certainly want to make some cash, have not cast aside their art in a quest to count the coins.  Leave that to the big studios, all of whom should have commerce in their names.  The Coens offer original (they do the writing as well), often deliberately convoluted, always quirky and imaginative work, not perhaps always satisfying to every taste bud, but dammit these guys are never boring.  And don't you just hate it when your filmmakers bore you?

They bring us imperfect characters (none have been to the MGM School of Charm), ordinary people who are trying to do the best they can in this big, often alarming world.  They often react to their circumstances with a stumble and a few ill-chosen words but they usually get back on the horse and give it a slight kick.  Forward, horsey, let's go forward.

Such is certainly the case with Llewyn Davis.  Here is a young man with a guitar and a great voice, catching a singing gig when he can in Greenwich Village and sleeping on friends' couches as they become available.  He's been told by a woman he has occasionally sung with in a trio, that she may be pregnant and he could be the father.  He gets involved in a car trip with a couple of losers he doesn't know, has in his care someone else's cat that he is less than responsible about and harangued by a straight-laced sister who can't believe she even knows someone like him, much less related to him.

Through the sister's character primarily, we get the point of view from the other side.  All aspiring entertainers and all who have made it know the other side.  They've heard it many times.  When are you going to get a real job?  Better have a backup for when this thing doesn't work out.  Will you ever stop dreaming, ever wake up, ever catch a clue?  Sure do it (act, sing, dance, magic acts) for fun but not for anything serious.  What about kids?  What about planting roots?  What about growing up?

If someone didn't have to count on the kindness of strangers and accept a few handouts, there would likely never have been the likes of a Kingston Trio or a Joan Baez or a Peter, Paul and Mary.  I have no doubt that what Llewyn observed on the Village streets is exactly the way it was.  At around the same time on Santa Monica and Melrose Blvds, in Southern California's little coffee hangouts with postage-stamp stages and through a haze of tobacco smoke, I listened to beautiful voices singing about the everyman, punctuated by the occasional novelty folk song that would involve the audience.  Maybe afterwards, as I was pulling out of the parking lot, I observed my folksinger walking down the street, holding a guitar case and a knapsack hanging from his shoulder.

It all flooded my senses again in Inside Llewyn Davis. I like a trip back in time like that. 

Some viewers will be critical of Llewyn, the man, and as an extension, I suppose, Llewyn the film.  In this day and age I think the general sensibility is about accepting personal responsibility.  He clearly does not do a lot of that although, frankly, maybe I'd change my mind about some of that if I saw this a second time, which I'm likely to do.  To be honest, there are some real nuggets to be unearthed when one sees a Coen brothers' film a second time.

At the heart of the piece is the acting and singing of Oscar Isaac.  If you don't know him, change that.  Put down the knitting, the book and the broom and play fewer games on that computer and catch his work.  I first took note of him in the 2010 version of Robin Hood and he charmed me no end in the more-delightful-than-I-thought-it-would-be, high school reunion movie, 10 Years (2011).  In fact it was his singing of Never Was in the film that sparked my interest in him for this film. Then he again impressed me as a dedicated teacher in 2012s Won't Back Down.  He has a wonderful facility for listening, something all the best actors have.

All the other actors, fine as they are, have rather minor roles.

So bravo to the Coens, great seeing you again Oscar and super lovely hearing your voice.  The film opens with a song and you guys had me right away.

Tussle with Russell

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