Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers are back in town but, alas, not on tip-top form. This is indisputably a clever film, artistically-speaking, with a great original, live, soundtrack, fine performances, and a show-stealing cat (well, five of them in fact). It has all the hallmarks of Coen movies with moody cinematography and an allegorical plot. It is also loosely based on a ‘true story’.

It is 1961 in the Village and Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a handsome-in-a-sultry-kind-of-way folk-singer is struggling to find fame and fortune. He is also an ‘asshole’, managing to spoil every relationship he has, be it with the Upper Eastside Gorfeins, parents of his former singing partner, who threw himself off a bridge (wonder why?); or with clean-cut ‘friends’ Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake resplendent in geeky disguise, and Carey Mulligan, sugar-coated but simmering underneath, a dig at the trio Peter, Paul and Mary); his sister; his agent; his parents…in other words, a loser.

In quasi-Homeric style, Davis lurches from couch to couch in a freezing New York trying to get ‘home’, seeking the ever-elusive record deal for his new album, introvertedly called Inside Llewyn Davis, a far cry from his first, more joyful If I had Wings. His Odyssey is symbolised by the elusive ginger cat he allows to escape from the Gorfeins and then spends the rest of the movie trying to find and repatriate, the only truly humorous theme in the film. 

His journey takes him to a recording studio, as a session musician to the more successful Jim’s chart-bound Please Mr Kennedy, a catchy, goofy tune about the space race, for which he foregoes royalties for a cash-up-front fee; and thence to Chicago, to the aptly named Gate of Horn where, in Homer, dreams become reality, in the company of a villainous Cyclops, a one-eyed heroin-addicted jazz musician played by John Goodman. Another lovely cameo from Homelandcreepy spook F Murray Abraham as the producer, whose damming verdict, ‘I don’t see any money in it,’ marks the beginning of the end of his quest.

Back in New York, still angsting about the cat, he passes a billboard for The Incredible Journey, the ‘true’ story of how three pets made their way home across 200 miles of Canadian wasteland, a scene of pure poignancy. Poor Llewyn, his home run is slipping away.

The film, while containing so many brilliant touches, is nevertheless unremittingly mournful, like our anti-hero. One can’t help feeling sorry for him, but he really is an asshole: ruining the Gorfein’s dinner party, heckling a large middle-aged female folk singer, knocking up Jean and thereby betraying his mate Jim; turning down a recording contract; losing his naval papers…and so on.

As I said, the film is loosely based on the book by Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street.Dave had recorded a new version of a traditional folksong with some unique chords called The House of the Rising Sun. A nerdy young singer, Robert Zimmerman, asked if he could use van Ronk’s version. No, it was already recorded, but the naughty Bob Dylan had already done it and the rest is history. 

No coincidence that our hero has a Welsh name, that he looks like van Ronk…a real story of what might have been. But perhaps more an exploration of the knife-edge that true talent rests on – in the words of the song, ‘how does it feel, to be on your own….a complete unknown…without a home’: one slip and you plunge into the abyss; a lucky break – the theft of a song perhaps – and you make it big time. Many critics have loved this film, probably because it is technically brilliant, a critic’s movie, and the Coen brothers are legends; despite all of that, for me, it was just a little too bleak and un-redemptive and, surprisingly for the Coens, short on laughs.

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