Inside Lewyn Davis, the newest movie from the Coen Brothers (O’ Brother Where Art Thou, True Grit, The Big Lebowski) is a mystery. No, not a whodunit mystery, but a mystery as to what their point was in making this movie. Inside Llewyn Davis is not a bad film, it just seems kind of pointless.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of a Folk Singer on the fringes of the music scene in Greenwich Village in 1961. In other words, this is kind of, but not quite a what if tale of a semi, kind of, almost Bob Dylan/Dave Von Ronk/Phil Ochs type of character. In fact, a Dylan look alike is in the audience and on stage at both the beginning and ending of the film in case we didn’t quite get it.
One would think with such a premise in the more than capable hands of the Coen Brothers, we could expect a grand romp through the early Folk Music scene, a grand send up like O’ Brother Where Art Thou, or at the very least a homage to an era gone by. Instead we get ninety minutes of gratingly nasty characters headlined by the baffling self-destructive Llewyn Davis.
Actually, there shouldn’t be anything baffling about Llewyn Davis. Guys like him make up the majority of failed musicians who exist on the fringe in any genre of the music business, but that’s only half the problem. We never find out why LD is the way he is other than a vague reference to the fact that his former music partner committed suicide. There’s no hint of the usual suspects in why a great talent blows their chance at fame and fortune, booze, dope, women, crooked managers, etc.
The highlights? Well, a thin slice of 1961 Greenwich Village from the point of view of a musician on his way out the door seems very real, but it is an extremely narrow vision of what was an extremely interesting era. Carey Mulligan, of Great Gatsby fame, plays a nasty, self-centered singer looking for an abortion. Justin Timberlake is her chirpy little husband. Stark Sands and Adam Driver have great scene stealing cameos as a pair of loopy Folk Singers. John Goodman also drops by for his usual Coen Brothers bombast at mid– film. He’s good, but predictable. It also makes me realize that Goodman would have made a much better Rooster Cogburn than Jeff Bridges. Garrett Hedlund does a good impression of a twenty-five year old Dennis Leary if he’d been a Jack Kerouac Beat Poet Punk.
The trouble with the whole mess is that in the end, you don’t really care whether Llewyn Davis becomes a star, drops out or joins the merchant marine, (hint, this is another grating episode within the film). The movie keeps your interest, but there is no payoff, leaving you frustrated and not wanting to bother with it a second time.
There was one character I did connect with, the cat. A running joke, or motif or whatever the hell it was, involves a cat that Davis is attempting to return to its owner. I worked up more genuine concern over whether the cat was going to make it home than I did over poor old Llewyn.
Note: This brings up two other dead end plot lines in the movie. During LD’s road trip with John Goodman, LD runs over…something, another cat or something that looks like a cat or God knows what, maybe it was the financiers of this fiasco trying to escape before the bills came due. During the same road trip LD also decides to look up a child he didn’t know he had, but he apparently decides to just drive on into the night instead. Inside Llewyn Davis? Never once do we get inside Llewyn Davis. This is a surface portrait, not superficial, but one that never gets beneath the skin.
Perhaps worst of all is LD’s name. Llewyn? If you’re like me, every time you see the name you fill in the blanks and make it Llewellyn. Maybe that’s part of the joke. He’s two Ls short of being somebody, just like this movie is about two well written scenes short of making us give a damn about Llewyn Davis.
Ultimately this is a seventies Art House film which would have looked brilliant if it were made for a dollar ninety-five back in the 1970s and played for five years at the stoner Valley Art Movie Theater on Mill Avenue near the ASU campus in Tempe, Arizona as part of a double bill with Harold and Maude or The Go Between. As an A list movie by big time directors with top dollar movie stars, it’s a joke and not a very funny one.
The Coen Brothers are a throwback to the old school film making of John Huston and John Ford. It looks like a real movie and not a 3D video game come to life and for that I tip my hat to them. I just wish they weren’t so smug about it. Don’t be afraid to make a statement boys. That’s what Huston did. Some of the critics may laugh condescendingly and you won’t be so hip anymore, but it’s all right to admit you care about something. That’s the trouble with Inside Llewyn Davis. It doesn’t seem to care about anything deeply which misses the point of what the Greenwich Village Folk scene was about, caring about something; the music, the politics, the excitement of being part of a once in a lifetime moment that people would still be talking about fifty years later.
Three out of Five Stars for quality film making. ***
In a simliar, funnier vein Christopher Guest’s parody A Mighty Wind.
A real life story of the Canadian Folk Scene – The Travelers.