Monday, December 16, 2013

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Is Cinematic Music and Top-Tier Coen Bros.


- A new Coen Bros. film is, for me, a true movie event. The Coens have made several of my all-time favorite movies, and even their lesser films are more interesting than most filmmaker's best. What's fascinating about the Coens is that, while there are certain themes and signatures that crop up in all of their films, their works are each incredibly unique - covering an wide variety of genres and tones. But no matter the genre, and no matter if the film is a drama, a comedy, or some hybrid of the two, what you can always count on is a brilliant script, mesmerizing and atmosphere-soaked direction, and a thematic sophistication that invites discussion and individual interpretation. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is no exception. It's a challenging movie. It's got a lot of dark humor, but it's also not as overtly comedic as The Big Lebowski or Burn After Reading. And there's a real element of nightmarish, existential dread to the film - but it's a much lighter and more humanistic film than, say, No Country For Old Men. What Coen Bros. film is it closest to? I'd say that the closest comparison is, perhaps, A Serious Man - a movie that also mixed black humor with a slightly surrealistic feeling of foreboding. That said, LLEWYN is its own beast - a unique an hard-to-categorize entry in the Coen Bros. cannon that's funny, sad, thought-provoking, and, on top of all that ... it's a musical (sort of). What can certainly be said, however, is that film fans need to rush out and watch this immediately.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS takes place in Greenwich Village, in 1961, set amidst a folk scene that was changing and dying and on the verge of rebirth thanks to a new wave of musicians led by Dylan. Other filmmakers may have simply chosen to dramatize the story of Bob Dylan, but the Coens, as always, like to focus in on those on the fringes. To that end, this is the story not of a great folk-music hero, but of a would-be star who could never quite get his break. That guy is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), and when we meet him, he's jumping from couch-to-couch, living off scraps and the kindness of strangers. Llewyn was once part of a folk duo, but his partner died - killed himself - and ever since, Llewyn's been struggling to leave his past behind, and carve his own path as a solo artist. He plays gig after gig at the same assortment of dingy music clubs, rubbing shoulders with a rotating cast of fellow troubadors. Some seek to make it big, some are content living the bohemian life. Some, like Lllewyn, hope for a break, but also pridefully refuse to sell out. How to do both? There may not, in actuality, be a way. And so Llewyn finds himself in an endless causality loop - two steps forward, two steps back - living a lifestyle that's both self-defeating and yet one comprised of patterns that Lllewyn can't seem to break.

What's so brilliant about the film is how its very structure loops around and circles back in a way that parallels Llewyn's day-to-day existence. We are led to imagine that Lllewyn and his late partner were, perhaps, on a path to commercial and artistic success. But ever since his partner died, Llewyn seems trapped in an inescapable downward spiral. It's all sort of encapsulated by his couch-jumping: he goes from friend to friend, always assuring them that his stay will only be temporary. And yet, there's a permanence to Llewyn's life - a sense of him being doomed, and damned, to simply repeat the same mistakes over and over - just as sure as a few months after having left someone's apartment, he'll inevitably return when he's exhausted his list of couches and starts the rotation anew.

The film shows various forces pushing and pulling at Llewyn, and him pushing back. But always, inevitably, he finds himself back where he started. When Llewyn's friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) reveals that she's pregnant (possibly with his child), Llewyn immediately starts talking about her having an abortion. When Llewyn gets the opportunity to record an infectiously-catchy novelty song with his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), he hastily asks for his check without bothering to sign a contract to receive royalties. And when Llewyn decides to journey to Chicago to track down a record company exec who'd been sent his demo, well, it seems to be the hardest that Llewyn has ever pushed against the universe to alter his fate - but again, inevitably, the universe pushes back.

And so it is that INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is much more than just a story about a folk musician. It's a story that's packed with larger themes and big questions about life, the universe, and everything. The Coens often seem to enjoy playing the part of cruel gods with their characters, and as they did to their protagonist in A Serious Man, they seem to relish putting Llewyn through the ringer to see what happens. Indeed, there's a very noir-ish bent to the film, in which Llewyn constantly seems to be at the mercy of the cruel hand of fate. And there's a lot of interesting use of recurring imagery and symbols that provide a lot of fodder for post-viewing discussion. Again, if you go in thinking this is *just* a story about folk music, prepare to get more than you bargained for.

At the same time, this is one hell of a movie about folk music. The Coens expertly capture the mood and ambiance of 1960's New York - dim, dingy, cold, and claustrophobic - and they also capture the folk scene of that time, and pepper the movie with several fantastic musical moments. What's so impressive is that each musical number in the movie tells a story when you read between the lines. Whether it's Llewyn's soulful demo of his song before the record-label exec in Chicago, or the cheesy yet undeniably catchy collaboration between Llewyn and Jim on peppy pop song "Please Mr. Kennedy," (which remained in my head for days), each song gives us insight into Llewyn's headspace.The music, in and of itself, is incredibly well-done and impeccably performed. But what makes it so special is how it's used - as part of this profile of a guy trying to navigate between art and commerce and past and future. Every moment, every song, feels integral to the larger whole.

The cast is exceptional. Oscar Isaac is a guy who's deserved the spotlight for a long time - he impressed me with his villainous turns in films like Robin Hood and Sucker Punch, but this is, hopefully, a true breakout role for him. As Llewyn Davis, Isaac is sort of a jerk. And yet, there's a haunting sadness and soulfulness behind the snarky veneer that makes you pull for the guy. Isaac also pulls off the film's musical numbers to perfection - an impressive feat given how crucial it is to the movie that the music come off as genuine and genuinely good. Cary Mulligan is also a standout - her exasperated, on-edge portrayal of Jean is funny and forceful. John Goodman, well, he and the Coens always work magic together, and this film is no exception. Goodman's character, a beat-up jazz musician named Roland Turner, is awesome. Self-styled like some sort of huckster pimp, Turner is a cautionary tale about the toll of a long life lived on the road as a career musician. Turner is accompanied by his enigmatic valet, Johnny Five, played as a Marlboro Man-esque man-of-few-words by Garrett Hedlund. Goodman and Hedlund enter the film as part of an extended stretch in which the movie morphs into a surrealistic road-trip - as Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago with the odd-couple pair and drives straight into the abyss. The tonal shift is a little jarring, but it's classic Coens. It's through this segment of the film that we come to realize the larger themes of the movie - where all the ideas about looping spirals, repeated patterns, and about being trapped in a strange sort of artist's purgatory finally come into full view.

The movie goes to some dark places, but it's also, at times, hilarious. I was cracking up with laughter during Llewyn's scenes with his ancient manager Mel, and during his strange back-and-forth dialogues with Goodman's Turner, and at many other moments throughout the film. Life as a strange, dark comedy is one of the Coen's pet themes, and they mine humor from the darkest and weirdest of moments. It's like what the Stranger says in The Big Lebowski:  "I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' itself." 

It's funny though, because INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS does have a stronger emotional undercurrent than most Coen Bros. films. The sadness of Llewyn resonates - and we're constantly reminded of the emotional toll that the death of his old partner still takes on him. And so it is slightly difficult to stomach when the Coens don't ultimately give us the catharsis or resolution that we want. Perhaps no surprise to those who've seen the unconventional endings of A Serious Man or No Country For Old Men, but still, if Inside Llewyn Davis has a flaw, it may be that the Coens veer too much, at times, between sincerity and aloofness. They tease us with moments that seem to be building towards send-'em-home-happy payoff, but ultimately, it's clear that that's not what they had in mind for this film.

So what is the point? Some may ask this as the credits roll. And it's a valid question. There's a lot to ponder about this movie, and as always, it's sometimes hard to know what, precisely, the Coens are getting at with the more esoteric aspects of the film (a lot of people, myself included, will likely long be wondering what, exactly, the recurring character of the stray cat means/symbolizes/represents in this movie). But the Coens are smart - brilliant, even - and I think it's all there on the screen, and it's all there in a way that gives me confidence in their ability to tell this type of story that's rich in meaning and subtext. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is filled with great performances, best-in-class direction, and on top of all that, numerous, superbly-done musical performances. But this film is more than just the surface elements - it's two master filmmakers giving us yet another deep thought - a meditation on life's great and small cosmic jokes. The film's greatest piece of music is the film itself.

My Grade: A-

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