Inside Llewyn Davis review: trying of the human spirit

MaryAnn’s quick take: Hilarious in the Coens’ weird, askew way, but also absolutely crushing. This movie breaks my heart in a hundred different ways.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the Coen Brothers
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

After a second viewing this week of what is, I figure, Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterpiece atop a career of masterpieces, I am all about trying to figure out what this odd little plot device means and what that unusual line of dialogue could be hinting at and just why did the Coens — writing and directing together — intend to suggest with that interesting thing over there. Oh, how I love it when the Coens give us a movie that’s an intellectual puzzle!

I especially like it in the case of Inside LLewyn Davis because here, they have also given us a film that is an emotional playground like none they’ve played in before, and I can hardly bear to linger there too long. I don’t want to think about. Because this movie is absolutely crushing, and breaks my heart in a hundred different ways. Even all the possible solutions to the puzzle that is Llewyn Davis are fucking depressing as hell. Note: This is not a bad thing. I think it’s safe to assume that the reason the film was all but overlooked when this year’s Oscar nominations were announced is that it refuses to engage in the relentless optimism that typifies American filmmaking. The human spirit does not triumph here. Cuz sometimes it doesn’t. And all the feel-goodery isn’t just unrealistic, it’s can also be exhausting, particularly when you know it’s bullshit. Sometimes life is unfair, and sometimes life just plain sucks, no matter how often the movies tell us otherwise.

Could be this is the first time misery and despair made for a refreshing change of pace.

Could be Llewyn’s plight just hits way too close to home for me.

Unlike all those happy optimistic Oscar nominees — yes, even 12 Years a Slave — this movie isn’t about survival, it’s about drowning. It’s about giving up the fight. After a failed career as part of a traditional folk duo in the late 50s and very early 60s, Llewyn (oh my god, Oscar Isaac: The Bourne Legacy, Drive; oh my god) has been trying to make it on his own, after a breakup with his former partner, the details of which are unclear as the film opens. Of no fixed abode, he has nowhere to sleep except the couches of whichever friends and acquaintances are the least pissed off with him this week. He can’t get any royalties out of his manager for his solo album, Inside Llewyn Davis, probably because no one is buying it. After he sings a beautiful song — about, okay, death — for a folk promoter, hoping for a gig, he is dismissed with “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Which is very likely an accurate assessment of Llewyn’s art. And in the world we live in, money matters.

The film meanders like a folk song itself through one week in cold, snowy February 1961 — Llewyn doesn’t even have a winter coat — as Llewyn bounces from his sister’s (Jeanine Serralles) house in Queens, where he is barely tolerated; to Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe, where he sometimes plays for tip money; to the tiny downtown apartment of married folk duo Jim (Justin Timberlake [Runner Runner, Trouble with the Curve], an absolutely inspired bit of casting) and Jean (Carey Mulligan: The Great Gatsby, Shame), where Jean hates him and snarls at him that everything he touches turns to shit; to the near palatial Upper West Side place of academic couple the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips [The Island, Bad Santa] and Robin Bartlett [Shutter Island, City of Angels]), who treat him sort of like a pet: “our folk singer friend” is how they introduce him to others. But at least the Gorfeins are kindly; Llewyn doesn’t get a lot of affection from anyone. To be fair, while he is extraordinarily engaging as a fictional character, he might be a tough person to like personally. He’s arrogant, stubborn, superior, and quick to display his disdain for anything he considers stupid or ridiculous, like the sort of music the folk crowd is embracing. The insipid, repetitious crap Jim and Jean sing? Really? *sigh*

But he’s not wrong.

It’s not that Llewyn Davis isn’t hilarious in that weird, askew way that the Coen Brothers always are: it’s that this time, even the funny bits are somehow pathetically sad. Why does the image of Llewyn on the subway with the Gorfeins’ cat — who got locked out of their apartment with him as he was leaving one morning after sleeping on their couch — make me cry? The cat is happy — it’s having an adventure. But Llewyn is dragging it around because he feels responsible for it, not because he particularly cares about it; he doesn’t even know the cat’s name. Is the cat his artistic ambition, something that’s become a burden, yet something he’s not quite ready to let go of… until he is? There’s another cat scene… two, actually. I won’t spoil. But you’ll know them. They’re like kicks in the gut. (Don’t worry: no cats were harmed in the making of this film.) Because they’re getting Llewyn closer to the moment when he decides that he’s done with folk music. Or that folk music is done with him.

This damn movie. It’s a treadmill of nostalgia and regret, and the horror of second-guessing oneself. There’s hints here of boats Llewyn just misses, and ships about to sail — like the folk explosion of the 1960s led by Bob Dylan — that maybe could make Llewyn, or maybe not. Because could Llewyn be like Jim and Jean, if that’s what success demands? Could he go electric like Dylan? Is he about to give up just before the thing would happen that would mean he wouldn’t have to give up? Hindsight can be a terrible thing.

This damn movie.

first viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival

see also: spoiler alert: what’s really going on in Inside Llewyn Davis

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