When you sit down to watch a new movie by Joel and Ethan Coen there are certain things you can expect in regards to cinematography, sensibility, and John Goodman appearances.
But it always takes a while to get a feel for the tone as the Brothers Coen can come at you from any direction. You’re never quite sure if you’re in for a hilarious farce like “Raising Arizona” or “The Big Lebowski,” or a hard-boiled crime drama like “Miller’s Crossing” or “No Country for Old Men” — or maybe even a combination of the two like “Fargo.”
I had a hard time settling in on the tone of their new movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” to the point that I had to see it a second time before I was really sure how I felt about it.
It is the story of Llewyn Davis (brilliantly played by Oscar Issac), a struggling musician in the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
The movie’s underlying gag is that Llewyn and all his contemporaries are essentially dinosaurs going about their business, unaware that an asteroid named Bob Dylan is hurtling towards them to flatten their world.
This is essentially the story of a man and his misguided relationship with his art, and you can tell that the Coens have poured a lot of themselves into this saga of a starving artist. The problem is that Llewyn is such an unlikeable and pitiful character that the movie struggles to make a connection.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is precisely crafted, but ultimately cold and while it’s easy to admire, it’s hard to love — sort of like a Dutch oil painting.
Llewyn has been at it a long time. He’s been trying to make a go as a solo act following the death of his musical partner, but his career is going nowhere fast. Llewyn has no permanent address as he couch surfs around New York City, staying in one place as long as his bitter attitude can be tolerated.
We follow Llewyn around as he rubs up against other folk artists like the duo Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) or Al Cody (Adam Driver), who all cling to a hope of success that Llewyn sees slipping away from him.
As an artist, he refuses to compromise and we watch Llewyn brush aside even the most meager of opportunities. He won’t to go to the world because he believes that the world should come to him. In short, he believes he should be treated like the Bob Dylan of folk music, even though he has no idea how much he’ll pale in comparison when the real Bob Dylan shows up.
The crumbling of Llewyn’s delusions of grandeur is a rough ride and even after he’s forced to face the truth following a fated road trip to Chicago with a boisterous, surly jazz musician (surprise! It’s John Goodman!) and his nearly mute associate (Garrett Hedlund) it’s hard to ever truly feel sorry for Llewyn.
The lasting legacy of “Inside Llewyn Davis” will probably be the music, as no one can put together a soundtrack like the Coen Brothers, especially when they enlist the help of music-supervisor-supreme T-Bone Burnett.
Much like what their “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack did for bluegrass music, the “Inside Llewyn Davis” soundtrack does for folk music.
You get the impression that the Coens were just so in love with the music and the place (Greenwich Village of 1961 is lovingly and painstakingly reproduced in this film) that they just cobbled together a movie around it.
This was a movie I enjoyed a lot more the second time around once I had come to terms with the fact the Llewyn wasn’t going to learn any great lesson or be redeemed in any meaningful way.
In the end, we are all at the mercy of the relentless march of history. Our only options are to go with the flow or to stand our ground and, like Llewyn, get plowed under.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is rated R for language including some sexual references.