Llewyn Davis is just trying to make a living as a folk musician. He was part of a duo that did well enough, but now he’s a solo artist who doesn’t even have his own place to live in NYC. A bad night at one of his regular clubs leads to a whole lot of broken relationships that slowly pull any semblance of stability apart.
The Coen Brothers have created a musical character study through the language of 1960s folk. Inside Llewyn Davis comments on the arbitrary nature of success in the music industry through Llewyn and his contemporaries. Is there any reason the nice young military man is considered such a gifted performer while Llewyn, playing and singing just as well, leaves audiences cold? What explains the popularity of Jean and Jim when other folk groups, small and large, can barely get an audience into the same club space? Every folk musician in the film is talented and performs music that really starts to blur together. There’s no logical way to explain how the interchangeable sounds lead to such wildly different audience reactions.
Inside Llewyn Davis hinges on a joke Llewyn makes at the end of his first performance in the film, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” A lot of things happen over the course of the film, but time itself seems stuck. Everything connected to Llewyn’s music and personal life is given screen time. It feels like an eternity has passed in the course of one day as he desperately reaches for something to pull him out of the never new, never old lifestyle of a gigging musician.
Oscar Isaac pulls off a very tricky role as Llewyn Davis. Llewyn is a very polarizing man. Jean makes it very clear that she believes any attempt by him to have a relationship with any woman is a form of abuse because he’s such a horrible person. Meanwhile, Pappi (the owner of the main club he plays at), Jim, and Upper West Side professors the Gorfeins think he’s a funny and talented musician worthy of success. For all the bad things Llewyn says and does, you never turn against him. Isaac manages to humanize a horribly jaded character and transform him into a sort of hero you can cheer for.Carey Mulligan and John Goodman steal the show as Jean and Roland Turner. Carey Mulligan’s Jean is the it girl of the folk music scene. People show up just to see her perform with her boyfriend Jim. Once she’s offstage, though, she is the toughest character in the film. She refuses to put up with Llewyn’s passive aggressive pity routine and will not let what little charm he does have force her into a situation that will undoubtedly hurt her. The aggression only comes out when she’s with Llewyn, probably the one person in the world that could make her behave just as poorly as him.
Roland Turner is another story altogether. John Goodman has been loudly stealing focus for years in prestige films (should have been nominated for Supporting Actor at the Oscars in Flight, would have been nominated as the producer in The Artist if he had one more scene, made some of the trickier scenes in Zero Dark Thirty work as well as they did, etc.). Most actors do it quietly; Goodman does it kicking and screaming. If you want a larger than life character delivered in a way that feels wholly believable, hire John Goodman. Roland Turner is the brash, manipulative, long-winded jazz musician Llewyn gets stuck in a long car ride with. Goodman crafts such an intriguing persona with so little useful information about the character himself. It’s the physicality, the cadence of the voice, and the commitment to such a bizarre caricature that makes Roland’s scenes the funniest and most shocking in the entirety of the film.
That, in itself, is the big problem with Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s vignettes stacked together that don’t really add up to anything. It’s character study, sure, but it feels like the Coen Brothers want the film to be so much more than that. They’ve created this odyssey for Llewyn to go on charged not by some outside quest for the greater good but as a punishment for a man who will never get his act together. There’s just no destination. Everything feels like it’s building to some grand conclusion to close the story of Llewyn and nothing ever comes.
The ending of the film, in particular, feels like everyone got lost. The few tiny bits of new information recontextualize the entire story, but do nothing to justify this grand journey. It’s an entertaining diversion with great music and acting, but not much else. Inside Llewlyn Davis shallow, which is the one thing you cannot call Llewyn Davis.
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