Monday, December 9, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen


For as brilliant and celebrated as the Coen Brothers are, I'm not sure you can go through their filmography and find a performance like Oscar Isaac has in their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis. They assisted the performances of Frances McDormand in Fargo, Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, John Goodman in The Big Lebowski, which are all better performances than Isaac's here, but those are all still orchestrated by that oh so familiar Coen Brothers scheme. Their films are so specifically controlled and manipulated that the performances - even the great ones - feel like pieces of filmmaking, instead of the work of professional performers. Isaac bursts through that veneer with a character that feels so much like a Coen creation, but with a completely different representation. In their first film since 2010's underwhelming True Grit, the Coens turn their eye toward the pre-Bob Dylan folk music scene of 1961 New York. Our focus is on a single performer, Llewyn Davis, who's cycle of failure and poor luck makes up the whole of their latest, polarizing film.

Oscar Isaac plays Davis as an incredibly talented but frustratingly obtuse personality, a man filled with all-consuming torment over the death of his former performance partner, Mike Timlin. Since the death of Mike, Llewyn has struggled as a solo folk singer, with a debut record that he didn't receive an advance on and is still waiting on the royalties for. Llewyn is perpetually broke, without a home, and is lucky to keep finding a nightly bed on the couches of friends who aren't exactly swimming in success themselves. One of those friends is Jim (Justin Timberlake), another music performer who lives and performs with his wife, Jane (Carey Mulligan). Jane hates everything about Llewyn, but what she probably hates most about him is that she is recently pregnant, and she's not sure if it's Jim's or Llewyn's. Llewyn tries to explain to Jane that it takes two to tango, but Jane shirks all responsibility in their fling, placing all the blame on Llewyn because he's such a fuck-up. As the film continues forward, we start to see where Jean is coming from.

The Coens have always been brutal to their protagonists, with their characters usually spending the entire film dodging all the falling pianos only to be crushed by an anvil at the end. If A Serious Man tells anything about these sardonic brothers is that they actually think The Book of Job was funny. What separates Llewyn Davis from Jerry Lundegaard or Barton Fink, is that all of Davis' misfortune is brought on by his own bullheaded temperament. Midway through the film, Jim brings Llewyn on to perform on a silly little pop song called "Please, Mr. Kennedy". The song is slight and buffoonish, and includes a dopey looking singer named Al Cody (Adam Driver) singing back-up one-liners. But its a paycheck that Llewyn desperately needs. In fact, he needs the money so badly that he signs away his rights to the royalties of the song's sales so he can have the cash payment upfront (and it's later insinuated that the song will become a huge hit). So Llewyn gives up future earnings to get paid upfront to afford an abortion for the wife of the man who got him the job in the first place.

So you see, Inside Llewyn Davis is built around a circular plot formation where Llewyn is basically forced to make his dire situation even worse because of past indiscretions. Llewyn's personality is so locked into the pretentious idea of being the starving artist that he not only shuts out those who attempt to help him, but those even try to communicate with him. On two different occasions, he doesn't listen to the finer details of what his friends and family are trying to tell him and it lands him in an even bigger shithole than he was to begin with. The only affection that Llewyn shows within the entire film is with a cat named Ulysses. The cat belongs to an older Uptown Jewish couple named the Gorfeins that allows Llewyn to stay with them occasionally. As Llewyn is leaving their apartment, Ulysses runs between his legs and the locked door closes behind him. Llewyn watches over Ulysses, or at least he tries to, losing him and finding him more than once. When he thinks that he's lost the Gorfeins' cat for good, he begins to feel really bad about it. "That's what you feel bad about?!" Jean exclaims after hearing Llewyn explain the Ulysses situation.

The film's story take place over the course of a week, where Llewyn manages to find himself inside of the cars and sleeping on the couches of several different people. He always has his guitar and his overnight bag, and occasionally he's carrying around the cat as well. It's hard not to wonder when he finds time to shower. He occasionally runs into characters that are more despicable than him, like chatty bluesman Roland Turner (played with pitch-perfect voracity by John Goodman) and his much-less-chatty partner, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund, still in On The Road mode). But usually, those he encounters are just innocent bystanders, including Jim and the Gorfeins (played wonderfully by Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett). Llewyn's sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles), can't seem to understand her brother's aimless behavior, and she's the last person who's going to voluntarily give him money... again. All of Llewyn's family and friends know that he is still bitterly grieving his former partner, Mike, but they all seem to be at the point of shutting him out for good.

But the movie is named after Llewyn Davis, and essentially every scene includes him, so it's a wonder at how Oscar Isaac is able to make this misanthrope so watchable for an hour and forty-five minutes. Isaac doesn't shy away from Llewyn's pricklier parts, but he focuses the performance in grief, the death of his partner. The funneling of those feelings into his numerous emotional outbursts unfolds in a way that definitely makes sense, even if it doesn't necessarily generate sympathy. It doesn't hurt that Isaac is an overall incredibly charming actor, and part of the charm in this role is his ability to actually sing and perform these songs. Hearing him sing "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" and "Fare Thee Well", it's hard to avoid the musical talent, and it's easy to see the tormented soul he's portraying. I'm not sure how many people will realize how good Oscar Isaac is in this (I know that sounds pretentious, but it's true), with the audience's frustration with Llewyn's cranky wanderings overflowing into their feelings on the performance, but it's amongst the best performances of the year.

Saying that a Coen Brothers movie is well-made almost sounds redundant, but over sixteen features they've morphed from two sarcastic anarchists into the practitioners of detailed filmmaking. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel casts the movie in washed out blues and greys, a perfect depiction of the brutal Manhattan winter that Llewyn is barely surviving. The Coens have the reputation of being heartless, of throwing their characters under the bus while they watch judgmentally from above, cackling at their misfortune. I definitely see that argument, and Llewyn Davis does indeed have one character, one named Troy Nelson (played by Stark Sands), that seems to be a creation that just fills the Coens with contempt for simply being a decent, but yokel-y young man. It's hard not to see it as mean. But the Coens have never been much interested in redemption tales, or protagonists overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. There's enough stories like that out there, and we shouldn't downgrade two of the best filmmakers of their generation on one of the few things they don't do.

ALERT! What follows isn't really a spoiler, per se, but is just spoiler-y enough, I feel, that someone might end up getting upset if I don't put up some kind of warning beforehand. Here it is. The film's ending stuck with me a little bit, it's punchline to the Llewyn Davis saga seeming a little too clever for it's own good. Since nailing the moral ambiguity of No Country For Old Man, they've seemed to become obsessed with the anti-resolution. This gimmick paid off big time with their two wildly underrated follow-ups to No Country, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man. But here, the trick feels a little cheap and without substance. It was the one aspect of the movie that really bothered me, even though I enjoyed the movie immensely on the whole. Inside Llewyn Davis slides itself into a pretty hotly contested Oscar race, which has multiple films, big and small, vying for various categories. I'm not sure this movie has the kind of audience friendly story to propel it into the awards picture. Hell, I'm not sure anyone would even see it if it weren't by the Coens. As good as this movie is, I think a quote from one of the film's characters, Bud Grossman, says it best: "I don't see a lotta money in it."

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