Dr. Donna Copeland’s
OSCAR ISAAC CAREY MULLIGAN JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE JOHN GOODMAN GARRETT HEDLUND
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
The Coen Brothers are excellent story tellers and inventors of characters, whether or not you like the film as a whole. Inside Llewyn Davis would fit into that good but not great category. The most impressive elements here are Oscar Isaac’s magnificent voice and “prickly” character performance and the unusually unique minor characters the Coen’s fill the script with. This is the anti-successful musician story; it's the flip side to Walk the Line. Oscar Isaac explained that the Coen’s wanted to make a movie about the struggle and failure of a musician in the 60’s contrasted with all those in that era who were about to make it big. With T-bone Burnett producing and arranging the music, the longtime Coen collaborator worked with Isaac to perfect an iconic sound that will sustain the mediocre film.
“Troy Nelson is good, he connects with people,” a record manger explains to Llewyn Davis (Issac), who just delivered a head turning song caustically in front of him. Once again rejected because of his inability to connect with people, get on his feet financially and follow through with anything, he returns to New York to crash on friends' couches and struggle from one live gig to another to make ends-meet. Llewyn was part of a successful duo until his better half threw himself off the Washington bridge. Forced to be a solo act, Llewyn walks the cold streets of the city, box of records in hand, trying to get anyone to listen.
I admire the concept of telling a story without a happy ending about a dreamer (if you can call Llewyn that) that wasn’t one of the singers we celebrate in their success. While a fictional character, Llewyn lives and breathes the cold air in a decade that the Coens and Burnett bring back to life with vintage cars, folk music and frumpy clothes. Oscar Isaac (Drive, Robin Hood) owns every frame with his sour face of desperation as he chases a cat he let out of a friend's apartment, fighting with musicians on stage he feels are below him and trying to stay awake on long snowy drives to auditions. The film opens with the half Guatemalan, Half Cuban-American actor’s stunning voice as he effortlessly strums and sings songs that make you want to buy the soundtrack more than finish the film.
Filmed documentary style, the performing process of the film required Isaac to do each song in one take all the way through, raising the impressiveness of this performance, which is certainly the best work in the 33-year-old’s career. Goodman is a classic Coen character and quite a scene stealer in his limited screen time. Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t a comedy, but it's quite funny in a sarcastic way that the Coen’s have become famous for. Irony is something their scripts always excel at, and this is no different. However, watching your lead character just wallow in misery, no matter how good his voice is, can only be entertaining for so long.
Final Thought – Isaac’s performance and voice are the main attraction.
By: Dustin Chase
Inside Llewyn Davis reminds me a bit of Burn after Reading, also by the Coen brothers, in which there is little about the main characters to sympathize with. In the earlier film, there is more humor, which softens the impact, but there is little humor in the former. Rather than humor, Davis’ music is the softening agent to his abrasive personality. Davis’ lack of social graces or even a smidgen of empathy for others is self-destructive, and thwarts his drive to become an employed, popular artist. The Coens created this character to tell a story about “real songs by made-up people”, according to Oscar Isaac, who plays the title role, and T-Bone Burnett, the music producer and composer, in a Q&A session after the screening of the film at the Austin Film Festival.
Llewyn Davis is a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village in New York in the early sixties. He has become homeless, and must borrow sofas for the night among his few friends—who are remarkable in their forgiveness of his obnoxious behavior in their homes. One is a former lover (Carey Mulligan) who lives with her husband (Justin Timberlake) and is furious with him for good reason (a very different role for Mulligan, which she aces). Another is a music professor and his wife with a lovely cat, which, in Coen playfulness, holds its own as a star at times. Davis has no apprehension in the least about asking friends he has just met at these friends’ homes to sleep on their couch from time to time.
A relief from these trying moments comes when Davis picks up his guitar. The music is the complete opposite of his personality—soulful, creative, vibrant—which is a curious juxtaposition. Nor surprisingly, the imminently prolific, award-winning T-Bone Burnett is responsible for the success of the music, many of which are classics based on Dave van Ronk’s renditions, such as “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, and “Dink’s Song – Fare Thee Well”, and one of which he composed (“Please Mr. Kennedy”). Apparently, the whole film is loosely—very loosely—based on Van Ronk’s memoir.
Another significant part of the success of the music is Oscar Isaac’s performances. Because the Coen brothers wanted the film to be similar to a documentary, Isaac spent long hours before filming, perfecting his sound to be as close to Van Ronk’s as possible. He was required to perform each song during a single take to give it the documentary quality. In addition, his portrayal of the character during the entire film is remarkably good.
The music is really what saves this film from complete despair. There are moments intended to be funny, such as the John Goodman role, or a countrywoman singer with a dulcimer, or Davis’ interactions with the cat, but I found them more pathetic than humorous. Others may find them genuinely funny, however.
I am a huge Coen brothers fan, and although Inside Llewyn Davis is not quite to my taste, the music and acting are most impressive.