It’s a question all performers face at one time or another: would it be worse to have sudden, indescribable fame, only to eventually lose it all, or simply struggle, day in and day out, to achieve a level of notoriety that really never comes? In other words, would you rather be a forgotten former superstar or a half-known never was? Since all celebrity is fleeting, it’s a given that, with rare exception, the former is the typical path. But what about the latter? What about the decent, hardworking journey-man or woman who trots through the avenues of their various mediums of expression, only to locate limited returns and constant rejection. Llewyn Davis (a terrific Oscar Isaac) easily fits into this confused category. At one time in his career, he was on the brink. A previous partnership produced a modest hit. Now, drowning in a circuit that seems poised to pounce on the “next big thing,” our hero is obviously not “it.” After meeting him, it’s not hard to see why.
As yet another brilliant example of the Coen Brothers period expertise, Inside Llewyn Davis captures the near-dawn of the Dylan Greenwich Village folk scene with all the accuracy of a half-remembered dream. It looks the part, and even plays it at time, but this isn’t a movie about how Americana came to define a pre-Beatlemania music scene. Instead, it’s a study in pointless purpose, of how one man with an obvious talent can’t find the forum to advance his career and is, instead, labeled a loser by all around him – even those who choose to help support him. At his best, Llewyn can deliver a traditional tune with utmost conviction and poise. At his worst, he’s a miserable man who can’t do or say anything right, and is actually defiantly proud to wear that label. Even his name seems strange – not quite Lou, not really Llewellyn.
We first meet up with the troubled troubadour as he is having his ass handed to him by a stranger in a back alley. A less than enthusiastic reception for his set has led to more self-loathing, a couple of bruises, and another stint on the coach of his college professor friend Mitch Gorfein (Ethan Phillips). On his way out, he lets the cat escape, turning the musician into a feline foster parent. A trip to his ex-girlfriend Jean Berkey’s (Carey Mulligan) apartment brings about some shocking news – she is pregnant and she’s not sure if its Lleywn’s or her current husband, Jim’s (Justin Timberlake). She needs money for an abortion and want to hide the situation from her spouse.
Hoping to earn a bit of cash, Llewyn tries to find work around town. He gets a session on a nutty novelty song. He then hitchhikes to Chicago. Along the way, he meets up with a rather odd man (John Goodman) who has his own particular bias against folk singers. When an audition in the Windy City for club promoter Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) goes badly, Llewyn heads back to NYC. There, he realizes that nothing he does will be successful, even as it appear the scene is about to skyrocket into the social consciousness.
Overflowing with timeless folk tunes and performances that present then with heartfelt emotion, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen Brothers more perplexing films. It’s not really a drama since the things that happen to our lead legitimize a sarcastic laugh or two. But it’s not really a comedy either, especially when viewed through the gloom and anger of our main character. Llewyn Davis is classic Coens, but he’s also unfiltered Coens. He doesn’t have Barton Fink’s arrogance, Tom Reagan’s street smarts, H.I. McDunnough’s naive charms, Ulysses Everett McGill’s gift of gab, or the Dude’s laid back life view. Instead, he is all mensch and melancholy, complaining about things he is clearly responsible for but wants to avoiding copping to. His only saving grace is his music, but even that is getting lost in the wave of wannabe artists flooding the Lower East Side.
Isaac, bearded and beleaguered by a mop of dark curly hair, tries his best to bring some humanity to this inhuman ideal, but every step of the way, the Coens countermand this. Take the stuff with the cat(s). At first, we appreciate that Llewyn cares for the critter. But then, as it becomes clear that he’s less an animal lover and more a self-involved a-hole who wants to guarantee a place on the Gorfein’s couch, we see his darker, more disturbing side. This is really emphasized during a distressing scene along the side of the road. The Coens see Llewyn as his own worst enemy, and later, when he’s harassing a poor old country woman with an autoharp, we see just how deep his loathing goes. He’s willing to burn every bridge he has to make sure no one supplants his sense of worthlessness.
There’s some basis for this in the backstory he’s given. Llewyn’s father is apparently the kind of militant Merchant Marine who, even in semi-catatonic retirement, frightens his unsure and sullen son. His sister is equally strident, though she cares about her brother. Jean has reduced Llewyn down to mere dirt, and when you consider that the Coens keep hinting that he somehow had a hand in his late partner’s suicide, you begin to see the cinematic big picture. When he sits in the spotlight spilling his soul out in easy to grasp sing-along stanzas, Llewyn Davis is a pure spirit. He’s channeling the past in a way that’s prescient for the present. But the minute he puts down the guitar and picks up a bottle or a burning cigarette, he’s a horrible human being, a collection of convictions that have little to do with the folk ideal and more to do with his lack of pride and a legitimate living.
As with their last original screenplay, A Serious Man, this is intricate Coens (especially the last minute “twist”) that demands repeat viewings and strict attention. It’s not instantly accessible and reveals its many layers only upon subsequent revisits. Some may consider it a minor effort in the brothers’ legacy, but when you consider the monumental achievements over the entire career, it’s hard to classify anything they do as “lesser.” Instead, Inside Llewyn Davis delves deeply into a somewhat forgotten facet of the 1960s while staying completely true to the Coens’ vision of human frailty and personal difficulty. One can only imagine what Llewyn would be like if he struck the kind of artistic gold that was waiting for Dylan, Seeger, The Kingston Trio, and others from the scene. In his case, he will clearly become a never-was…and perhaps, that’s the way it should be. It’s what Llewyn Davis, the man, deserves.