‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a glorious return to form for the Coen brothers. A musically smooth, kooky comedy wound up in the 1960s New York folk scene, it’s almost good enough to make you forget that wooden spoon of a film ‘Gambit’ altogether. Oscar Isaac (Drive, Sucker Punch) plays Llewyn, a struggling musician who floats from couch to couch, waiting for life to throw him a bone that he can actually catch. Not an enormous amount actually happens in the film, but it’s the refreshing subtlety, coupled with a score that has been named among the Best of 2013 by the editors at iTunes, that make this film such an intense pleasure to watch.
Llewyn is a shabby but loveable character who always seems to hit just left of centre when aiming at life’s bullseye, despite his moments of admirable tenacity. On his journey from gig to gig, he reluctantly befriends a cat, learns that his sexual escapades with his friend’s live in girlfriend Jean (a weirdly shouty Carey Mulligan) have got him in hot water, and takes a road trip to Chicago with a junkie Cowboy (John Goodman) and a smouldering Kerouac-y poet played by Garrett Hedlund, as a last ditch attempt to get his career going. His character is said to be loosely based on 1960s New York folkster Dave Van Ronk, who was eventually nicknamed the ‘Mayor of MacDougal Street’ thanks to his presence and importance around the Greenwich Village area, but what we have here is arguably more of a composite character who provides certain cultural reference points for sure, but who also allows the viewer the space to give some real thought to the concept of fate versus luck.
Llewyn’s talent is abundant, and is proven time and time again with various heartfelt performances, with one particularly notable recording studio moment alongside Jim (played by none other than Justin Timberlake), Jean’s boyfriend, and another would-be folk star, Al Cody (played perfectly by Adam Driver). Al booms out single notes during their group rendition of Jim’s masterpiece ‘Hey Mr President’ which are so funny it’s a wonder that the entire cast managed to keep a straight face long enough to get this scene filmed. Despite these sporadic moments of hilarity, viewers will find watching Llewyn stumble through life tiring, and his underlying lethargic approach to the trials and tribulations of his world suggests he feels the same – relief only comes to all involved when he’s in song.
Whether the Coens are using Llewyn as a vessel to express their frustration at the current state of the arts, whereby mediocrity has an uncanny (and frustrating) ability to succeed, or whether they’re making their protagonist a more positive embodiment of the warrants of tenacity, regardless of the end result, is unclear. The sadness that permeates every note from Llewyn do however tell us that he knows deep down that despite his best efforts, the probability of there being any ‘give’ in his story is negligible. His music has been deemed a ‘desperate requiem for his own dreams’, which for me is the perfect summary of this whole film. Bravo Joel and Ethan, bravo.
4 out of 5.
Pensive, frustrating and hilarious all at the same time. A brilliant piece of Coen brothers gold. Do not miss.
Out 14th January 2014 in the UK.