Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

There is never a dull moment in the Coen brother’s new film, Inside Llewyn Davis. Nor is there an exciting one. 

The film chronicles roughly a week in the life of a Greenwich Village folk singer, though the focus is far less on his music than on his social life—or lack thereof. Llewyn “divides his time” between his erstwhile girlfriend, who happens to be his best friend’s wife; a professional couple who teach at Columbia and live in middle class comfort on the Upper West Side; his childhood home in a working-class borough where his sister lives with her son, now that their father has been put in a home; and a coffeehouse where he occasionally performs. He pays a visit to his agent and to a posh recording studio, where he’s been hired to do a session; he takes a trip to Chicago with two strangers to try to set up a gig with an influential club owner.

In the course of watching scenes from this peripatetic life unfold, like the pages of a film storyboard,  an image of Llewyn forms in our mind, but there isn’t much of an “inside” to it. He’s irascible and hot-headed but never actually devious or manipulative. He takes his art very seriously but has weathered so many defeats that what might once have been an inflated ego has long since become a modest chip on his shoulder. But unlike Job, Llewyn Davis never asks why. When things go wrong, he just picks himself up and starts in again. 

All the same, an aura of suffering and futility hang over the film, and Oscar Isaac does an admirable job of sustaining Llewyn’s weird mix of artistic integrity, fatalistic resignation, and raw spleen. Along with most of Llewyn’s friends, we like him…but we don’t like him much. Can he sleep on the couch tonight? Well…OK.      
The Coen’s are past masters of the individual, self-contained scene, in which a character we’ve never met appears vividly before us (often from behind a desk), plays his or her bit part in the protagonist’s life, and exits the stage. There are plenty of such characters and scenes in Inside Llewyn Davis, through which we get to know the circumstances and events of his life piece by piece—the death of his former singing partner, his former girlfriend’s abortion, how much he owes in back dues at the seaman’s institute. Part of the fascination in watching the film is observing how deftly the bit characters play their roles without quite stepping over the line into caricature.

The Coen brother’s films have always carried a stylized element—some call in “mythic,” other call it “comic book.” In recent films such as A Serious Man and True Grit, the excesses have been more muted, the artistry more pronounced. (Remember The Hudsucker Proxy? Sheesh!) Inside Llewyn Davis seems solid enough, scene by scene, that comparisons to Flaubert may be in order. Also like Flaubert (I’m thinking of the novella Julian the Hospitaller) the most exciting event happens off-stage, after the film is largely over. But that’s as much as to say that Inside Llewyn Davis may be a masterpiece…but that doesn’t mean it’s wildly entertaining.

Postscript: I don’t mind admitting that I’m old enough to remember those days of early commercial folk, when Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio were wildly popular. Very white, very clean, somewhat bland. But also spirited.  I bought a few copies of Sing Out! Magazine, learned a few chords on the guitar, bought some Hohner harmonicas, and watched Hootenanny on TV. But I never liked the genre much. When the Yardbirds and the Kinks came along, things got better.

Now, forty years later, I’m glad I know all the verses to “Three Jolly Coachman.” Then again, when was the last time they sang that at a party?  

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