Inside Llewyn Davis

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inside llewyn davis
(from left) Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver.

I was really looking forward to Alexander Payne’s movie (Nebraska) and was a bit disappointed. I was also looking forward to the Coen brothers latest. Any movie lover anticipates their films, even though they’ve done a few turkeys; and this was a letdown. It’s a bit thin in the plot department (although the cat is given a nice character arc). What it does have is incredible cinematography and songs.

It’s hard for us to spend nearly two hours with a guy who is his own worst enemy. Although it helps that he can sing, act, and is played incredibly by Oscar Isaac, in what should easily get this unknown actor an Oscar nomination (I voted for him in the San Diego Film Critics Society). It’s the same way I felt about Michael Stuhlbarg after seeing the Coen’s A Serious Man. Yet unlike that movie, there’s just not enough to support the fine performance.

It’s Greenwich Village in 1961, and the folk scene is yet to take off. Llewyn Davis was part of a folk duo called “Timlin & Davis” but he lost his partner, and is struggling to make it as a solo act. He crashes at any pad he can, asking most people he comes into contact with “Do you have a couch?” He’s able to hobnob with musicians and rich university professors. Yet we also learn early on, that he’s kind of a jerk. Later in the movie, we stop blaming it on the loss of his musical partner. Perhaps his only redeeming quality is that he genuinely seems concerned about the cat.

His former squeeze Jean (Carey Mulligan) is a poorly written character. She is also trying to make it in music with her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake), who is oblivious to the fact that Llewyn still occasionally sleeps with her. This also gives viewers two of the most poorly scripted arguments in a film this year. They came across as so unbelievable and uninteresting. The women in this movie seemed to be written to merely nag the troubled troubadour.

We get some interesting scenes of Llewyn performing at the Gaslight Café, and flirting with the possibility of going back into the Merchant Marines. That’s because his record label/manager seems to be screwing him over and he’s running out of options. He decides to take a road trip to Chicago, which means we get to see Coen regular John Goodman as a jazz musician named Roland. This gas bag relentlessly torments Llewyn by poking him with his cane, knocking his genre of music, and telling long-winded stories that interest nobody but himself. The character that does most of the driving (Garrett Hedlund) on the road trip, does that mute thing like the villain in Fargo. It got to a point during the movie where I was hoping he would stuff Llewyn Davis’ body into a wood chipper.

As a music lover, I was intrigued with watching Llewyn go to sparsely attended gigs, walking through the snow (in what almost looked like the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover), capturing the time period perfectly.

There’s also a scene with F. Murray Abraham as the owner of a popular club that gives him an audition. It was fabulous, and made you wish there could’ve been a better movie made with all this material.

At times, I thought of the Paul Simon film One-Trick Pony. Other times, I thought of Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind. Those were also films that really capture key elements of the music industry that are fascinating and frustrating, but like those two movies – this just isn’t a great film. They’re sporadically interesting.

We watch as Llewyn sees others in the business garner a bit of success. They do it with songs that aren’t as good (not just his opinion, but ours). It’s enjoyable to watch how he handles it. There’s an early morning on a couch, when he gives a military guy some passive aggressive comments about a gig he has coming up. Another time he gets drunk and heckles a folk singer that’s performing.

A lot of the supporting characters are one-dimensional, and we count on the Coens for more from these bit players.

By the second half of this movie, I came up with an analogy. I felt the way you feel when you’re at a concert watching a talented singer, but one you don’t care much for. You just went because the woman you’re dating wanted to go. You’re just hoping to hear the guy say, “I’ve got time for one more number.”

And really, when sitting in a good movie you should never have thoughts like that. You can only take so much of weird characters doing quirky things. It all becomes repetitive, which is a shame. It could’ve been an interesting character study of a talented, but troubled individual.

I laughed at seeing a message in the closing credits about how all the characters in this were fictional. Uh…I don’t think Bob Dylan performing at the club was “fictional.” There was also a band that was supposed to be a version of Peter, Paul, and Mary. A record label owner is supposed to be Moe Asch (Folkway Records). Adam Driver was a sort of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot – a Jewish cowboy with a wicked baritone. Oh, and Llewyn was based on Dave Van Ronk (who even had an album called “Inside Dave Van Ronk”).

The two stand-out elements of this movie were Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography. Whether it was capturing the cold winter days in New York, or a smoky coffee shop…it was outstanding.

The songs were the other great thing this movie provided. I felt the same way about O Brother, Where Art Thou? The songs were better than the movie.

T-Bone Burnett, who was the man behind the O Brother tunage (and Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges), was on top of recreating the folk vibe. Carey Mulligan sang 500 Miles. It puts the Peter, Paul, and Mary version to shame. Llewyn covers a few Van Ronk songs (Cocaine Blues and Green Green Rocky Road), as well as a touching scene in which he sings Shoals of Herring to his ailing father.

I think it would’ve been a gas to see John Goodman and his voodoo jazz character cover an early Dr. John song, but hey – he’s got his hands full just trying to walk from the car to the bathroom.

My favorite song is a novelty tune that Timberlake, Isaac, and Driver perform. It’s a protest song about going into space, and I printed the lyrics after this review.

The movie would get only 2 stars and the soundtrack 4 stars. That averages out to this movie getting 3 stars out of 5.

“Please Mr. Kennedy”

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2…One second please!

Please Mr. Kennedy, I don’t wanna go

Please don’t shoot me into outer space.

I sweat when they stuff me into pressure suits (Outer)

Bubble helmet, Flash Gordon boots (Space!)

No air up there, in gravity zero (Outer)

I need to breathe, don’t need to be a hero. (Space!)

And are you reading me loud and clear?  Oh!

Please, Mr. Kennedy…I don’t wanna go

To outer space

I’m six-foot-two, and so perhaps you’ll

Tell me how to fit into a five-foot capsule

I won’t be known as ‘man of the century’ (Outer)

If I’m blubbering upon reentry (Space!)

Got a red-blooded wife with a healthy libido

You’ll lose her vote, if you make her a widow

And who’ll play catch out in the back with our kiddo?

Please, Mr. Kennedy…I don’t wanna go…

To outer space.

Pu, pu, please!

Pu, pu, please!

Don’t shoot me into outer space!

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