May 30, 2014
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Is Your New Solidly Average Coen Brothers Film
I swung onto my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
According to ancient tradition, a schlemiel is a guy who is always spilling his soup on someone, and a schlimazel is the guy who is always getting soup spilled on him. The title character of the new Coen Brothers movie, LLewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a bit of both. He’s constantly pissing off the people who try to help him, and fully reaps the consequences of his behavior.
Like a character in a Greek tragedy whose fatal flaw is being a schmuck, his fate is to throw away every opportunity that falls in his lap. Instead of an epic journey of self-discovery, he ends up yo-yo-ing from place to place like a character in a Thomas Pynchon novel.
The movie takes place in Greenwich Village in 1961, midway between beatnik glory and Woodstock Nation. Davis is singing Hang Me Oh Hang Me in the Gaslight Club, and the Coens make two things clear: he’s good, and he’s never going to succeed. When the song ends, Davis steps into the alleyway and gets beat on for being a smart-ass. And so it goes.
As his odyssey gets under way, Davis picks up a scene-stealing orange tabby cat and runs into his frenemies folk duo, Jean & Jim. Jim (Justin Timberlake) goes out of his way to help out Davis, so of course it turns out that Davis has possibly knocked up Jean (an enraged Carey Mulligan). Later Jim & Jean sing a trio in the Gaslight with earnest soldier boy folkie Troy Nelson (Stark Sands from Generation Kill!). They play 500 Miles and knock it out of the park, doing the only thing that skilled but self-absorbed musician LLewyn Davis can’t do: connect to an audience.
Davis goes all On the Road and has encounters with a Coen Brothers cast of eccentrics: John Goodman chewing some scenery, F. Murray Abraham (Dar from Homeland! What are you doing here?), a dude named Johnny Five, another orange tabby cat, etc. Eventually things come full circle and Davis returns for some more hard times in New York town.
Long story short, this movie is no Big Lebowski or Fargo. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is gorgeous, the 1961 milieu is evoked well (except for a modern subway breezing through one scene, wtf?) The supporting cast is great, but Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis is just too earnest, and/or good at playing a schmuck to really sympathize with. The Coen Brothers have made better movies than this. They have also made worse (I’m looking at you, Burn After Reading). Go see it, or wait for it to come to cable, or download the soundtrack, your choice.