Friday, March 21, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is the latest film from the Coen brothers; the brilliant minds behind O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Grand Prix winner at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Inside Llewyn Davis does for folk music what the previously mentioned O Brother did for bluegrass, which is make the music shine and leave you wanting to run out and buy the film’s soundtrack. The film focuses on a few days in the life of its titular character, Llewyn Davis, an aspiring folk singer in 1961 struggling to make it big in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

A solo act since the death by suicide of his singing partner, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is thoroughly and utterly lost. An all-around screw up whose only place to lay his head is a different friend's couch each night, he’s managed to even mess that up by sleeping with his friend Jim’s (Timberlake) girlfriend Jean (Mulligan). The bitter and foul-mouthed Jean says it best when she tells Llewyn, “Everything you touch turns to shit,” sneeringly adding that he’s “like King Midas’s idiot brother.” This comes after her revelation that she’s pregnant and fearful of the baby not being Jim's and thereby demanding that Llewyn pay for an abortion. This bit of news and another unexpected revelation prompts the beaten down Llewyn to take the reins on his life and take a road trip to Chicago with a mumbling beat poet and heroin-addicted jazz musician (Goodman). Hardships abound in Llewyn’s odyssey but hope and determination remain as the film and his life comes full circle.

Given the film’s critical acclaim and the general ground swell of outrage at the film’s overall shutout from the Oscars, I thought I’d be wowed by the film and its performances; unfortunately, while I was impressed by Isaac’s performance and thoroughly enamored of every note in the film’s soundtrack, I can’t say I loved the film as a whole. The mood is dark and somber and while Isaac’s performance is on the money as far as his delivery, the character itself of Llewyn is too much of an anti-hero for my taste. Llewyn is at times sarcastic, a jerk, and sometimes downright mean; he doesn’t own any of his mistakes in his life, personal (Jean wasn’t the first girl for which he had to pay for an abortion) or professional.

The film’s circular tale (it ends right where it started) makes you feel like you’ve gone nowhere; both in the story’s progression as well in the characters growth or development. Llewyn is the same sad sack at the film’s end that he was at its beginning; namely because the film's end is its beginning. Llewyn’s only redeeming grace comes from his utter determination in his hopeful (and seemingly hopeless) strive to make his dream of a successful music career come true. The tale offers a bleak window into a struggling musician’s life; the nomadic lifestyle travelling from city to city in hopes of finding a new gig, combined with an irrepresible never say die attitude in spite of countless doors slammed in their faces, all in search of that one big break.

As I said, Oscar Isaac truly shines in the film movingly conveying Llewyn’s reluctant optimism and overall contrariness, but his true genius lies in his voice. Each one of Isaac’s performances are masterful and soulful, from the film’s opening song of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, to “The Death of Queen Jane” which he sings at an audition, to the utterly spellbinding and poignant performance of “The Shoals of Herring” which Llewyn sings for his father in a nursing home. I must say that while I understand the film not garnering a ton of Oscar nominations, I'm hopeful that the soundtrack will at least draw some well-deserved Grammy consideration. There is a magic to folk music which the Coen brothers have managed to capture on film; simple yet timeless songs that perfectly capture the essence of love, loss, joy and countless other human emotions.

Inside Llewyn Davis is an ode to the incredible music of a bygone era; a less than stellar tale with a nonetheless evocative and compelling performance by its lead star and an amazing soundtrack which paints a more beautiful picture than the film’s directors were able to through their script.