Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: "Inside Llewyn Davis"

The Coen brothers are among my favorite filmmakers, but over the last decade or so they’ve run hot and cold … or I have.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is their latest oh-so-sober effort, a dark and dreary portrait of a wayward folk singer trying to make it in the early 1960s. It’s shot in muted colors, contains little in the way of their trademark ironic humor, and doesn’t appear to be about anything than it superficially is.

It feels more like an exercise than a movie.

The film is wonderfully crafted, as is everything by Joel and Ethan Coen, and the music is often quite tremendous, especially Oscar Isaac in the title role. If you ask me if I wouldn’t mind owning the soundtrack, the answer would be yes.

But when I ask myself the question every filmmaker should before they start a new project -- “What is this movie really about, and why does it need to exist?” -- I’m afraid I come up empty.

The point, if there is one, is that serious artists who refuse to compromise their craft usually end up discarded and forgotten instead of celebrated. It’s only the lucky and the malleable who make it in the music biz. This comes as startling news, I’m sure, to exactly no one.

Llewyn is literally a man without a home, trundling his guitar case and duffle bag from apartment to apartment in New York City, where he crashes on the couches of his friends. The word “friend” is relative in Llewyn’s case, since a relationship with this man only flows in one direction. Food, accommodations, emotional support, invitations for gigs and a meager paycheck -- Llewyn only takes, not gives.

The one place where pours out his soul is behind a microphone. Isaac has a terrific voice and musicianship, and I loved the fact that the Coens actually let the actors perform the songs from start to finish, instead of that montage-and-segue thing you usually get.

He’s facing a new crisis when Jean (Carey Mulligan), a friend and one-half of the husband-and-wife singing team of Jean & Jim, announces that she’s pregnant, possibly with Llewyn’s baby. He has to come up with the money for the abortion, in addition to concealing this fact from Jim (Justin Timberlake).

The rest of the story wanders as Llewyn does. He ends up on other couches in other apartments, encountering other would-be folk singers and their enablers. Among those he meets is Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), an Army soldier who sings during his furloughs. Everyone adores him, and he certainly has talent, but Llewyn aptly wonders if Troy possesses higher brain function.

During one long, strange trek to Chicago to meet a producer, Llewyn finds himself ensconced inside a car sharing a ride with Roland Turner, a crippled jazzman played by John Goodman, who needles Llewyn that those in his profession “play all the notes” instead of just three or four chords. His largely mute driver, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), seems like he wandered in from the “On the Road” film adaptation.

There’s one terrific, heartbreaking scene where Llewyn finally gets to audition for that producer (F. Murray Abraham). The man clearly recognizes there’s a bonafide artiste sitting in front of him, but crass concerns prevail: “I don’t hear any money there,” he says, less a judgment than an apology.

Here’s a good Rorschach test to see if you’ll be drawn to “Inside Llewyn Davis”: What did you think of the Coens’ “A Serious Man”? If you were put off by that impenetrable rumination, which to me played like an inner dialogue inside the directors’ heads, then this new film will feel like more of the same. If you loved “A Serious Man,” you’ll probably enjoy this one, and we can find something else to talk about.

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