Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

Funny, sad, disconcerting, 
and beautifully sung, this might be a classic

The Cat (Llewyn Davis' Conscience) Threads the Movie
     One hour into the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I said to myself, “You’ve just lost me.”  About five minutes after it ended, I thought it was the best 2013 movie I’ve seen at a cinema so far (I haven’t seen 12 Years A Slave, Gravity, or Her).  In 2000, with T Bone Burnett’s superb music curatorial skills, the Coens broadened their cultural reach with the musical O Brother, Where Art Thou?  I know people supposedly hate musicals, though they sit through
every singing and dance competition show on TV, but this was a neo-‘30s chain gang story with an updated Ulysses plot and the phenomenally successful retro music.  

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis
     Half of the Coen brothers’ movies have been set in a historical period and Inside Llewyn Davis, a musical about the Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 1950s – early 1960s, carries on this tradition, while also referring to their own O Brother, Where Art Thou? (the cat’s name is both symbolic and a self-referential joke), Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, folk singer Dave Van Ronk, the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and then Dylan himself.  Some viewers may try to figure which folk singers from that period are being recalled, while being wowed by the understated yet exact recreation of the milieu.  Or they can just sit back, take in the music, and enjoy the comedy.  Yes, it’s a comedy, though the mature-elderly, respectful, quiet crowd with whom we saw it acted like they were watching a folk concert.

Davis Playing for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham)
     Using a classic circular comic structure, the Coens present show business in a specific genre and era through its personalities:  some hopeful, some on the rise, the chiselers, the drug addicts, the hipsters, the square friends that will always help out, and the desperate survivor that probably won’t make it, i.e. Llewyn himself.  Oscar Isaac, who’s been around for a decade, indelibly captures a desperate singer who might be a star or a schlub.  He has a lovely singing voice that would have probably fit in during the early 1970s singer-songwriter period, but by then he would have been too mature to be commercial for the teenage population.  He seems like a born and bred New Yorker and treats the Village as the center of the universe just like most native New Yorkers.
Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake
     Neil kept looking for Carey Mulligan before realizing that she was Jean, sweet and vanilla on stage, but a foul-mouthed Fury off.  She has a beautiful scene with Isaac late in the movie where she shows in a moment what she felt for him.  It’s like Love With The Proper Stranger in thirty seconds.  Take out all the cursing and the knowingness of looking back in time and this movie could have been a hipsters’ hit in 1961 like Paris Blues or Shadows. Jean is married to Jim, played like a 1950s second rate leading man by Justin Timberlake.  He has a wonderful reaction in a recording session headed by a John Hammond type producer when Davis asks who wrote “Please Mr. Kennedy,” but I don’t know if he has the tension to be a serious movie star the way Isaac does.  However, Timberlake’s singing is perfect and I prefer him doing this ‘60s folk, rather than his recent second-rate reading of Michael Bublé doing his Canadian Ghost of Sinatra thing.

John Goodman in a Period Midwestern Highway Scene
     John Goodman adds yet another wacked out portrait to his collection of Coen brothers’ gargoyles and monsters as a jazz musician who razzes Llewyn before passing out.  Garrett Hedlund plays Johnny Five, like James Dean or Jack Kerouac who’s actually on the road in the strange middle section of the movie that includes a visit to Bud Grossman.  He’s the guru, played with sensitivity by F. Murray Abraham, who gives Llewyn some good advice that I’m pretty certain he won’t take.  Grossman instead bets on Troy Nelson, played by Stark Sands as a Dudley Do-Right with a Broadway worthy tenor.  Sands was up for the Tony for Kinky Boots this past season and his sweet naïveté contrasts wryly with Llewyn’s seen it all before weariness.  Interestingly, his character is enlisted and Llewyn has been a merchant marine.  Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett are a hoot as the self-described “Upper West Sider” academics that, to use a joke from Annie Hall, probably attended intellectual left-wing Jewish summer youth camps in the 1930s and probably stayed in New York to escape HUAC in the 1950s.  They’re the owners of the cat that appears at various points and represents Llewyn’s conscience, bruised and hopeful.  I was uncomfortable with how that cat was treated; it was like a nightmare about Dexter.  My only cavil is that like Allen, there’s rarely an African-American face in Coen movies, but since Isaac is Guatemalan-American playing a Welsh-Italian character,  and there’s an Asian-American character at the end, there is diverse casting.  

Llewyn and Friend on the Move
     Unlike others that see Llewyn as ‘uncompromising,’ I think he’s unsure of himself and a low-key flibbertigibbet, who wants to do the right thing personally and professionally, but finds the odds against him.  He’s dealing with the aftermath of a tragic event and he’s smart to know himself and others, though he doesn’t see the value in what they’re doing.  It’s difficult to know who will succeed when you’re in the middle of something; it’s later that historians and critics can act as if there was always a conscious, but unseen, pattern at work.  When the young Dylan sings at the end, his song is good, but his voice is still that adenoidal croak with uncertain breath control.  I know, I know, he’s a legend and changed everything, blah blah, but this movie shows how that is a myth.  With the right breaks, Llewyn (or a historical counterpart) might have been that performer instead of being a musical version of Samson Shillitoe (A Fine Madness) or a New York version of Sebastian Dangerfield (The Ginger Man).  

     This is going long, but I have to add that Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography gorgeously evokes an era vanishing before our eyes.  He does this primarily through soft focus and de-saturated color.  The Midwestern highway scenes are breathtaking and are almost monochromatic.

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