When it became a box office hit in 2000 and its soundtrack won an Album of the Year Grammy the following year, Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? was credited with creating a whole new audience for traditional bluegrass and old-timey Americana music. Presumably, the Coen Brothers are hoping that Inside Llewyn Davis is going to do the same for the “folk revival” of the early ‘60s; they even brought T-Bone Burnett back in as arranger for their latest film. And as a dyed-in-the-wool old folkie who does remember the ‘60s, this reviewer is presumably representative of exactly the sort of viewers who are expected to take Inside Llewyn Davis unreservedly to their hearts.
Alas, I didn’t love the movie the way that I was supposed to. I guess that the National Society of Film Critics, which as of this writing just named it 2013’s Best Film, is never going to let me in. Don’t get me wrong; much of the music in it is fabulous, and certainly evocative of folk’s Golden Age. But in spite of the great soundtrack, Inside Llewyn Davis has one big problem right at its core: We never really get to see what’s inside Llewyn Davis.
Oscar Isaac, who stars as the titular musician struggling to make it in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961 (without an overcoat), certainly can’t be faulted for his performance. He sings quite well, if not brilliantly, and his acting skills deserve the extravagant laurels currently being heaped upon him. The trouble is that the character is so off-putting that watching him for an hour-and-three-quarters becomes a bit of an ordeal, and we don’t get enough backstory – the narrative spans a period of less than two weeks – to grok why the aspiring singer/guitarist is such a miserable human being. Isaac delivers a sensitive portrayal of a fundamentally insensitive guy.
What we do know is that Llewyn is moderately talented; that he grew up in Queens; that he has recently completed a stint as a Merchant Marine; that he has a history of knocking up his girlfriends and then scrounging up money to pay for their abortions; and that he used to sing in a duo that had some mild success. If he’s not being facetious when he says so, the reason that the act broke up is that his musical partner committed suicide, but I wouldn’t bank on that. Going solo isn’t going well for him, and it doesn’t help that his manager (Jerry Grayson) is at the least incompetent and possibly ripping him off. As he has no permanent place to live, Llewyn is running up a serious sleep deficit.
But none of this satisfactorily explains why the film’s central character is so surly and disagreeable all the time, behaving rudely even to the people who are trying hardest to help him. It quickly becomes clear that Llewyn Davis is no tormented genius battling crass commercialism; nor is he some 20th-century Salieri making a cri de coeur on behalf of the world’s mediocre masses. He just seems to be a really grumpy person who creates most of his own obstacles by habitually alienating people with whom he ought to be trying to ingratiate himself. The Coen Brothers do seem fascinated by such quirky outsider types, but it’s tough for a viewer to get emotionally engaged when a character undeserving of our empathy is the movie’s protagonist.
His best friend’s singing partner and girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan), whom he may or may not have gotten pregnant, has got it right when she tells Llewyn, “Everything you touch turns to shit.” The only time that Llewyn evinces an iota of capacity for nurturing is when he tries to rescue an escaped cat, and he even messes that up. When he finally gets a chance, thanks to a weirdly impulsive road trip, to audition for the manager (F. Murray Abraham) of the legendary Chicago folk club the Gate of Horn, he blows it by choosing to sing the morbid 16th-century ballad about Jane Seymour’s fatal C-section, “The Death of Queen Jane.” Not much commercial potential there, but bad choices do seem to be Llewyn’s forte.
Compounding the problem, in a way, for a longtime folk music fan is the much-touted factoid that the Coens were inspired to make this film by a biography of the great Dave Van Ronk. The cover art of Llewyn’s solo LP mimics that of Inside Dave Van Ronk, though the actor doesn’t look much like that big shambling bear of a man. Many of the songs that Isaac sings in the movie are closely associated with the real-life Mayor of MacDougal Street: “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (a/k/a “I’ve Been All around This World”), “Dink’s Song” (a/k/a “Fare Thee Well”), “Green Green Rocky Road,” “Cocaine.” And a few details of personal history overlap, notably that Merchant Marine service.
But the resemblance pretty much stops there. Although Dave Van Ronk never became a huge financial success, he is fondly remembered as a generous mentor to younger folk artists, hosting song circles in his apartment and teaching his ragtime-influenced fingerpicking style to an impressive roster of up-and-coming stars that included Christine Lavin, two of the Roche sisters and David Massengill. Llewyn Davis, for his part, specializes in mooching off his long-suffering friends and resenting anything nice that anyone has to say about one of his competitors; we are offered no glimmer of hope that he will grow into anyone more kindly as time goes by.
Perhaps most ironically, in the movie, the hopelessness of Llewyn’s ambition is illustrated by the new kid in town, Bob Dylan, taking the stage at the Village Gaslight just as he exits. In reality, it was largely a Dave Van Ronk record that drew young Zimmerman to New York in the first place, and he freely admits copying Van Ronk’s vocal style on his first album.
What that leaves us with are the always-fun things about a Coen Brothers movie, which largely consist of off-the-wall minor characters who pop in and out again, to no particular narrative purpose except to make a shaggy-dog (or in this case, shaggy-cat) story a little shaggier. Frequent Coen collaborator John Goodman is memorably hilarious here as an old windbag of a junkie jazz musician who makes Llewyn look like a rank amateur on the negativity front. And veteran character actress Sylvia Kauders has a brief-but-priceless bit as Llewyn’s manager’s secretary.
Bruno Delbonnel’s chiaroscuro period cinematography also deserves special mention. But mostly, Inside Llewyn Davis – as I suppose we should have learned by now to expect from the Coen Brothers – is the sort of movie that, even though you’ve found yourself laughing at it frequently, will leave you feeling just a little depressed afterwards. The tonic, in this case, would be to go out and buy yourself a Dave Van Ronk CD.