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There’s much to like about Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen. As usual, the production is extraordinarily good–the evocation of a wintry Greenwich Village, circa 1961, is the uncanny work of the filmmakers, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, production designer Jess Gonchor, a team of artisans, and New York itself. As usual, T-Bone Burnett has overseen a terrific score, one that, like his Grammy-winning soundtrack for the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) should enjoy a healthy life beyond the movie. As usual, a game cast, of newcomers, Coen regulars, and the most gargoylean supporting actors that could be herded, leap into the deep end of their conception. I love this poster.
And, as usual, I’m a little lost, befuddled by all the praise–the best film of the year, the greatest Coen brothers movie, hilariously funny. Etc. What was a I saying just two weeks ago about it? “I’ve seen the Coen brothers’ meticulously produced but clammy Inside Llewyn Davis, and would be surprised to see much love for it besides its score”–and right off the bat this awards season it won top prize at the Gotham Awards. Given its location shoot, in neighborhoods that still resemble the New York of fifty years ago, it was likely a shoo-in, but I feel like I’m on the outside looking at Inside.
I’d say the movie completes a Coen failure trilogy, joining Barton Fink (1991) and A Serious Man (2009). Then again all their films tend toward futility, and I doubt they’re finished yet. (Even True Grit ends with its heroine maimed.) I have no problem with that; there’s no comedy in triumph, when comedy is their aim, and I enjoyed the satirical/horror elements of Fink and the more aggressive cosmic jokes of A Serious Man (a Best Picture and Screenplay nominee at the Oscars, lest I forget). But there’ s something punishing about Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie that begins and ends with Davis, a folk singer at the end of his rope, as a punching bag.
For Davis, the failure has already happened; what happens in the film is largely aftermath. The folk singer (skillfully underplayed by Oscar Isaac as a low-voltage cross between Al Pacino and Jerry Lewis), down if not entirely out after the suicide of his musical partner, sinks lower and lower over the course of a week in frigid New York. Homeless, and broke, he flops on friends’ couches, and on one tangles with a quite wonderful cat, Ulysses (like O Brother, it’s a Coen Odyssey movie), whose hauteur recalls the feline in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Bridge-building with fellow folkies Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) goes awry when Jean hits him with unwelcome news, and not the first time he’s heard it. His sister, the unjoyful Joy (Jeanine Serralles), berates him as he contemplates a return to the Merchant Marine. Prospects dwindling, he hitches a ride to even colder Chicago with the expansive, dismissive Roland (John Goodman) and his valet, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), to audition for music kingmaker Bud Grossman (Amadeus Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, as a Salieri type finally getting back at an upstart Mozart). The coup de grace Grossman delivers to his hopes is trumped by an ironic finale back in the Village.
Little rises about sketch status. Some of the episodes are very deftly handled; the scenes with Ulysses, and a marvelous interlude where Davis, Jim, and a fellow musician played by a scene-stealing Adam Driver jam on a space-race novelty record, “Please Mr. Kennedy.” That particular scene temporarily warms the movie, which quickly cools again to the more grinding comedy of humiliation. (Davis, typically scornful of commercialism, accepts cash payment for his participation in the recording rather than a far more lucrative percentage deal, further sealing his fate.) Given few redeeming qualities other than a commitment to his mournful, out of step art, we don’t care much for Davis; perplexingly, the Coens don’t, either. Much effort has gone into recreating his time, but you never get a sense of Davis, a cipher, or why the filmmakers have busied themselves with facsimilies of a scene they show little interest in, much less love for. Davis may as well be a dentist, or a salesman, for all they seem to care. In interviews, they seem to care very much; onscreen, the not muchness of the storyline is disconnecting. It can’t be that, at the top of the cultural food chain as they are, they’re getting off on raining down rocks on the talented, troublesome nobodies who’ll never make it, can it?
Color me baffled. Showtime begins airing a concert inspired by its score tomorrow night, and I’m sure it’ll be good fun, with all the heart that’s missing from Inside Llewyn Davis itself. All I can say is that after its New York Film Festival screening ended I wanted to take a warm bath to get its chill off my bones. This is the movie that should have been titled Frozen.