Don’t let it ever be said that the Coen brothers don’t know how to make a film. Over the years, they have given us some highly memorable characters, lines and, let’s not forget, accents too. From The Dude and Walter Sobchak in THE BIG LEBOWSKI, Marge Gunderson in FARGO and Barton Fink in the movie of the same name (just to name a few), Joel and Ethan Coen have already cemented their rightful place in cinematic history.
Sometimes, though, they seem to get so far inside their own heads that few people really understand what they are trying to achieve. Oh sure, these same people will say they “so get it” but I’ll bet that the majority of them are scratching their heads in confusion as much as the rest of us are. I’m reminded of the premiere of the French film HOLY ROLLERS, which I saw at Cannes a few years back. It took me a good 30 minutes until I understood what the film was about and, when it was over, I was amongst half the audience who rose to their feet in much-deserved applause. But I’m sure that many of those people who were standing up with me didn’t get the film. They stood up because they wanted other people to think that they did.
That’s how I feel about INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. So many critics are raving about the Coens’ latest effort but, from my perspective, it’s a head scratcher. I wasn’t so much confused (in retrospect) as disappointed. It was like a delicious looking dish that purposely had the salt left out of the recipe. Why???
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS takes place over a week in the winter of 1961 as it follows the life of a struggling, young folk singer in Greenwich Village, New York. Llewyn Davis is moderately talented but he’s his own worst enemy. He heckles other musicians at the club where he performs, he imposes upon his friends – and acquaintances – to crash on their sofas, and he signs away his song royalties for quick cash. He even sleeps with his friend’s girlfriend and possibly knocks her up. His friends and family fall into two categories – those who tolerate him and those who hate him.
And that’s the film. For 104 minutes we watch Llewyn bounce around from apartment to apartment pissing people off along the way. He’s a character that you just can’t sympathise with (unless you’re an a**hole like he is). I’ll grant that the Coens are talented enough to make a film that might hold your interest throughout but it’s very hard to get emotionally invested in this story. It would have been nice if we could get more than just a brief glimpse into what the 60s folk scene was like but that’s what we’re given. At the end of the film, which is either a flashback to the start of the film, or the start of the film is a flashforward to the end (I vote for the latter but it is debatable), you just don’t care if Llewyn continues performing or if he gives it all up to join the Merchant Marine. Looking at the time with 2014 eyes, he’d be wise to pack up and ship out. The British pop invasion was just around the corner and, with only a handful of folkies surviving to record another day, Llewyn’s brand of folk music would be all but dead by the mid-60s. Oh sure, Bob Dylan was just starting out at that time but even he eventually sold out to corporate America.
I’ll try to be fair and say that the film had some good parts. The scenes with the cat were enjoyable (the cat, or cats, should get a PAWSCAR) and actor Oscar Isaac, who plays Llewyn, has a very tender singing voice. The film also features Coen brothers’ regular John Goodman as a heroin-addicted, hipster musician who amusingly dismisses folk music as being inferior to jazz. It has fewer notes to the scale, he says. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan also star as Llewyn’s folkie friends who choose to enter the dark world of commercialism that Llewyn disdains.
My advice is to skip INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and buy the soundtrack instead because the music really is great. Or go see the film and scratch your head in either disappointment or confusion.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS will have its local premiere at the upcoming Hong Kong International Film Festival.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 38:20.)