Saturday, May 24, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen                           Writer: Joel & Ethan Coen
Music Producer: T Bone Burnett                     Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Max Casella and John Goodman

John Sebastian, in the documentary series American Roots Music, had this to say about the emergence of Bob Dylan onto the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the early sixties. “I met Bob Dylan in the basement of Gerde’s Folk City, and he was still playing kind of jug band music, like what I liked, and so I found him quite enjoyable, didn’t take it too seriously. I just happened to be at the Gaslight a few months later when he walked in and played “The Times, They Are a-Changin’” and “Masters of War” and left. And I remember thinking, did songwriting just change, or something? Did I miss something?” The Coen Brother’s latest film is an exploration of the folk music culture in Geenwich Village in the nineteen sixties, just prior to Dylan’s transformation of songwriting. The inspiration for their main character was Dave Van Ronk and the title of his 1964 album. Inside Llewyn Davis is their homage to the singers who never made it big, and the frustration that surrounds all artistic endeavors that bubble just under the surface of success.

Oscar Isaac plays the title character, a homeless musician with a passion for singing ballads and blues. The film opens with Isaac being beaten up in an alley after singing at the Gaslight Café. The scene then shifts to him waking up in an apartment that is obviously not his. He pulls out a record album of he and his former partner and plays it while he gets ready. As he leaves, the cat escapes and he winds up taking it with him to the apartment of Carey Mulligan. She has a guest, singer and soldier Stark Sands, with her and is clearly angry with Isaac. She writes a note that says she’s pregnant and the reason is suddenly clear. Isaac moves from apartment to apartment, staying with friends, acquaintances, and his sister, but is clearly unhappy with the direction of his career. His agent, Jerry Grayson, is doing nothing to make him any money and so he records a novelty song with fellow folkie Justin Timberlake and gives up his royalties for a flat fee in order to pay for Mulligan’s abortion. Desperate for anything, he winds up going to Chicago, sings a heart-rending song in front of club owner F. Murray Abraham, and is summarily dismissed as being unmarketable before heading back home in defeat.

It’s a grim film, in typical Coen Brothers fashion. What is missing, for me, is the humor that usually leavens the darkness. There are some good bits, the cat that he carries around the city, or John Goodman’s heroine-addicted jazz musician, but they are only brief respites in the overall oppressiveness of the film. But then, perhaps that’s the point. The so-called folk revival that came in the wake of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger was based on the popularization of old blues and gospel tunes, jazz and folk songs from early America and not really original material. As Isaac says after the first song he sings in the film, “You probably heard that one before. If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” But the real difference is between those who are having success as personalities or novelties, and Isaac who sings with great passion and yet has nothing original to say. After pouring his heart out in song to F. Murray Abraham in his Chicago nightclub, the owner makes the deadpan pronouncement, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” It wouldn’t be until Bob Dylan and others began writing their own original compositions that careers would be made, and would leave those who simply sang the older folk material kicked to the curb.

Oscar Isaac, whose most memorable role thus far in his career has been Prince John in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, does a nice job both singing and acting in this film. His exasperation at his lack of career success is cannily married to a snobbish sense of his own greatness by the Coens and it’s what gives the character a real personality. Carey Mulligan, however, spends all of her scenes being so angry that there is never a sense of a real relationship there. Most of the supporting cast, in addition to the aforementioned, do a terrific job as well. Ethan Phillips is the college professor who is enthralled by folk singers. Jeanine Serralles as Isaac’s sister is a beautiful foil for his inflated ego. And Max Casella is convincing as the manager of the Gaslight. I am decidedly not a fan of folk music, and even less so for ballads, so this film was not something I enjoyed watching. The absence of the kind of overt humor present in something like Burn After Reading also left me wanting. Still, the characterization of the title character is compelling and the evocation of the time period makes Inside Llewyn Davis worth at least one viewing, and for fans of the music even more.

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