Review by-Jarrett Leahy
After three decades of Hollywood success that includes the likes of the 2007 best picture winner No Country for Old Men, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen’s cinematic reputation has deservedly earned them the right to create whatever they want. Inside Llewyn Davis, in all its somber beauty, is the perfect example of this creative freedom and latest cinematic challenge to their fellow film fans. Set during the early 1960’s New York City folk music scene, Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of a down-on-his-luck folk singer and his arduous odyssey to survive and be heard. Llewyn Davis is an emotionally damaged, self-centered prick who seems to be able to express himself only through his music. Formerly part of a duo, Llewyn is now forced to try to make it as a solo artist after his singing partner tragically died. Scraping by for every penny, Llewyn mooches off any friend who is kind enough to let him crash on their couch. Snidely sarcastic, Davis can’t seem to buy a break, either in life or in the ever blossoming music scene, mainly due to his inability to get out of his own way.
Black humor in its simplest terms is comedy that makes light of serious subject matter, and by that definition Inside Llewyn Davis is a black comedy. Unfortunately, due to the painfully drab existence Llewyn finds himself living in, laughs are hard to come by. In fact, the funniest character in the whole film just might be the cat Llewyn is forced to take with him after they are both locked out of a friend’s apartment. As with every Coen Brothers film, the cinematography is second to none. So skillfully were they able to capture the look and feel of a 1960’s folk bar, that at times you feel as though you are there among the smoke filled crowd. Oscar Isaac, who performs all his own music in the film, offers a profound performance as Llewyn. Isaac fully commits to the role, never afraid of coming off as too prickly in the eyes of the audience. Most years, Isaac would have been a shoe-in for a Best Actor nomination; unfortunately for him 2013 was not like most years.
The supporting cast includes John Goodman as Roland Turner a crippled, drugged out jazz musician, and Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan who play the folk singing duo/couple Jim and Jean. Unfortunately, because the film is so wrapped up in the pessimistic moroseness of Llewyn’s world, these extremely talented actors wind up being all but wasted. The development of each supporting character only goes surface deep, each offering us one or two catchy one-liners that serve to constantly remind the viewer that Llewyn is a self-absorbed dick. The most surprising disappointment for me is Mulligan’s Jean. Stereotypically portrayed as a type of jilted lover, Jean’s biggest contribution to the film is her constant barrage of insults thrown at Llewyn every time they are in the same room together.
But for every disappointment the story may have, the film certainly makes up for it with its throng of wondrously melancholic music. If any aspect of Inside Llewyn Davis truly had the right to complain about being snubbed by the Oscars, it is the music department for the film. How they weren’t honored with at least a nomination is rather bewildering. From the opening scene, we can see the true artistic talent oozing from Llewyn; unfortunately his lack of connection with people in his real life seeps into his work. Only in his final performance of the film, after hitting what appears to be rock bottom, do we see Davis truly let loose, infusing his passion for song and in turn unleashing an emotional resonance that was missing in his earlier performances.
Some have expressed disappointment that Inside Llewyn Davis was all but ignored by the the Academy this year, only receiving two Oscar nominations for cinematography and sound editing. After finally seeing the film, I unfortunately have to agree with the Academy that it just wasn’t on the same level as the nine films that received Best Picture nominations. Inside Llewyn Davis toes the line between poignantly beautiful and painfully melancholic. Some will be turned off by its pacing, Llewyn’s often cantankerous personality, and the fact that there isn’t your typical happy ending. However, it is still a technically sound and skillfully made film, and there is a large number of film fans who found themselves truly moved by the Llewyn’s plight. Because of that undying support, I foresee Inside Llewyn Davis eventually joining the long list of films that receive cult classic status.-JL