Thursday, January 2, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis: Sour notes

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang 

To borrow shamelessly from a mordant holiday song, the only thing you’ll find inside Llewyn Davis is a heart that’s full of unwashed socks, and a soul that’s full of gunk. His brain is full of spiders; he’s as cuddly as a cactus and as charming as an eel.

He really is a heel.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, left) is undeniably talented, as he demonstrates when effortlessly
filling in for a session musician during the recording of a novelty tune in honor of
astronaut John Glenn. The song is penned by Llewyn's friend Jim (Justin
Timberlake, center), with a comic vocal assist from Al (Adam Driver)
None of which is the slightest bit amusing or entertaining, as was the case with the green-skinned Grinch. Llewyn Davis is simply a self-centered jerk: a struggling Greenwich Village folk singer attempting to make it in a business he neither understands nor admires, and who bitterly stomps on the feelings of anybody daft enough to extend a gesture of kindness.

We are, once again, spending nearly two hours in the presence of a thoroughly unlikable boor, and to no purpose. Llewyn doesn’t learn anything; neither does he mature or experience anything close to an epiphany. He has no spiritual side, and family ties are (ahem) mangled up in tangled-up knots.

He simply uses people without gratitude or a thought of compensation; the words “thanks” probably would choke him to death.

And yet all these personality failings aren’t the most irritating part of Inside Llewyn Davis. No, the biggest disappointment comes from the knowledge that this is a Joel and Ethan Coen film, and we wait in vain for any trace of the clever allegory, scathing character analysis or deliciously dark humor that has invigorated previous films such as Fargo and No Country for Old Men.

Solace comes there none. This new film is just a dreary slog.

The story follows Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) during what we can imagine is a typical few weeks in the winter of 1961/62, as he struggles to hustle up gigs while spending nights on the couches of the few people still willing to tolerate him. He’s a story-song purist: an angry young man determined to succeed on his own terms, and not yet aware that his brand of poetic, soul-baring angst is about to be buried beneath the hook-laden folk of Bob Dylan and the more melodic, listener-friendly music of (for example) Peter, Paul and Mary.

Not to mention the even more pernicious influence of bubble-gum pop songs.

As always is the case with a Coen brothers film, this one boasts a killer soundtrack. All the music is engaging and illuminating, not to mention a perfect depiction of the era. Isaac is persuasively credible behind a microphone, a guitar held in two capable hands; his music emerges from somewhere deep within, and for a brief moment we can imagine that he actually has something important to say.

Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) are the closest Llewyn can get to having actual friends; they’re a couple on stage and off, and their simple harmonic purity represents one path the music industry is about to take. Jim and Jean will Make It: absolutely no question of that ... even when Jim pens a droll novelty tune — so early ’60s! — by way of honoring America’s first man in space, and Llewyn joins the combo recording it under the billing of “The John Glenn Singers.”

After which, Llewyn demonstrates his financial idiocy by insisting on a straight-payment check as an unbilled session player, rather than troubling with the mildly more involved formality of getting credit and sharing in eventual royalties. Because we just know that song, in all its goofiness, will become a hit.

Watching it performed by Timberlake, recalling his real-world fame, is one of this film’s few genuine delights. And the vocal inflections contributed by Adam Driver’s Al Cody are hilarious.

Jim actually seems to like Llewyn, more fool he, but Jean adopts more of a scorched-earth policy. We suspect that she does actually care for this guitar-wielding misanthrope, but at the moment she’s furious with him ... or, to be more precise, furious with herself but using him as a release. Seems that Jean slept with Llewyn in the recent past, and now she’s pregnant; although Jim could be the father of her child, she can’t be sure, and therefore wishes to terminate.

Mulligan, oddly angelic in long, dark hair and the beatnik apparel typical of the era, puts impressive fury into her bitter tirades. Llewyn can’t really argue; neither can we, not even at this early stage of the story.

Llewyn’s subsequent days are highlighted by two story motifs, both of which hint at the allegorical elements the Coens often employ. Many of his actions are informed by the presence of a cat, or perhaps a symbolic series of cats: initially the affectionate orange feline owned by Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), two academics who enjoy “knowing” Llewyn as a means of bolstering their hipness cred, and who often let him crash on their couch when he’s in their more civilized part of New York.

This is, just in passing, a quite scathing indictment of university professors as stuffy intellectuals: a sign, at least, that the Coens haven’t completely abandoned their caustic sensibilities.

Llewyn’s interactions with this cat can be viewed as a series of celestial opportunities for better behavior; he struggles over doing the right thing, when the Gorfein’s beloved pet accidentally escapes from their apartment, but ultimately fails the test ... apparently unaware that bad karma is a bitch.

That the cat’s name is Ulysses is no accident, of course; this reflects the mildly Homeric journey that Llewyn subsequently takes, when he splits expenses and driving duties during an increasingly weird car trip to Chicago, where he hopes to impress the owner of a well-regarded club. Llewyn’s fellow driver is a scruffy young stoic dubbed Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), something of a chaperone for Roland Turner (John Goodman), a veteran jazz musician who behaves more like a mojo man recently escaped from a Santeria ceremony.

Here, at last, we’re in familiar Coen brothers territory. But for all its off-kilter trappings, this brief journey hasn’t anywhere near the thematic qualities of O Brother Where Art Thou, and the much more vivid “odyssey” that film’s protagonists take through Depression-era Mississippi. This trip is simply a series of disconnected stops and pseudo-mystical bloviations, the latter coming from Turner, Nero Wolfe-esque in his immensity.

Is Turner an intriguing character? Absolutely; Goodman always delivers a fascinating performance. In this case, however, he’s emoting in a vacuum, and his presence eventually proves just as pointless as most everything else in this lamentable mess of a narrative.

Llewyn’s performances, ultimately, are the film’s sole saving grace. The intimate encounters are the best, as when he auditions for the Chicago club owner — an attentive, all-knowing F. Murray Abraham — or attempts to bridge a long-standing estrangement with his institutionalized, dementia-afflicted father (Stan Carp). The latter scene is a heartbreaking killer.

The family bonds aren’t much better with Llewyn’s working-class sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles), who doesn’t pretend to understand “the music biz” and resents her brother’s condescending attitude toward what “regular folks” do to put food on the table. Little love lost there, on either side.

The scruffy folk scene itself can be viewed as a character in its own right, and that part of this film is both spot-on and compelling: the shabby little clubs, the fascinating range of performers, the exploitative “handling” by agents and record companies. Much is made of Llewyn’s former partner, whose recent (?) suicide becomes a punch line; we realize that Llewyn likely was the more talented songwriter/musician, but that his late partner was the duo’s more amiable “face” who connected better with the public.

Absent that guy who softened his rough edges, Llewyn can’t succeed ... and that knowledge is driving him crazy.

Okay, so we understand Llewyn ... but that still doesn’t justify his behavior, nor does it make enduring him, from our theater seats, any more worthwhile.

The fringe dwellers actually are more amusing, as befits the caricatures and grotesques who invariably populate a Coen brothers production. Goodman’s Roland Turner makes the most significant appearance, but equally memorable moments come from Driver, as the aforementioned member of the John Glenn Singers; Troy Nelson, as a saintly army recruit with an angelic voice; and Jerry Grayson and Sylvia Kauders, as Llewyn’s useless agent and his secretary/receptionist.

The production values are top-notch, with Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography inventively framing these early 1960s clubs in the manner of a Life Magazine photographer (and, really, this film should have been shot in black-and-white). Alternatively, when depicting the frozen pall of a New York winter, Delbonnel captures everything up to the wind-chill factor.

Production designer Jess Gonchor does equally well constructing the aforementioned clubs, not to mention the drab little apartments occupied by these various characters, and the impossibly narrow hallways leading to their respective front doors.

But all this effort doesn’t help a production that simply isn’t very interesting. I’ve had similar issues with other Coen brothers efforts, most recently 2009’s utterly bewildering A Serious Man. Like Woody Allen, the Coens make films for themselves; if the public latches on, so much the better ... but I suspect they’re not bothered either way. In that sense, then, they approach their art much like Llewyn Davis: an admirable quality, to be sure, but “admirable” doesn’t always mean “interesting.”

And Llewyn Davis’ story simply isn’t word pursuing.

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