From a distance Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about that dreamy 1960’s New York, the city that figures in the nostalgic dreams of those who say, “it isn’t what it used to be.” But, as this film comes into focus, it’s clear that its outward appearance is only a mirage, an illusion that disappears as you approach it. Inside Llewyn Davis’s New York City is just as crummy, gentrified, inaccessible, and driven by wealth as the city is today. As a portrait of the city and the time, the film is stunning, exceeding anything in the Coens’ impressive past. This is one of the most 1961 things I have ever seen. Indeed, the modern furniture that stocks an apartment we visit far outshines anything you could see on Mad Men, because it looks worn and used. It is not a fetishized picture of the era, but a startlingly realist one, with all of the awkward tiny hallways and uncomfortable interactions between old world and new inherent to the early 60’s moment. It isn’t the glitzed-up images we tend to see when directors try to take us on an escape into another time. This film’s world is simply ours, as it was.
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Producer(s): Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Scott Rudin
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Editor: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (as Roderick Jaynes)
Music: T-Bone Burnett, Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, Stark Sands
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Alex Karpovsky, F. Murray Abraham, Jake Ryan
Runtime: 105 minutes
Genre: Drama, Music, Comedy
Premiere: May 19, 2013 Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 20, 2013
US Distributor: CBS Films
And then there is the music. This is a world full of unplanned pregnancies, sexually coercive club owners, all tied together with really lame folk music. We won’t hear the emotional rawness of Joni Mitchell or the complexity of Bob Dylan; most of the film’s music (in fact everything but that performed by Llewyn himself) is closer to Peter, Paul and Mary than it is to Joan Baez. It is contrived or sentimental, and overall commercial. When Llewyn sings the ponderous “The Death of Queen Jane” for a major music producer (F. Murray Abraham), the man turns to him and says, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” That indictment of the 1960s folk scene is intrinsic in every frame of the Coens’ playful takedown of the folk mythos. This isn’t an idealistic freeing place where kids from across the country came together to play traditional music in new ways, this is a business, and what sells is (as usual) whatever can be packaged the best. That’s where this film shines brightest. Its setting and its portrayal of a scene are on point, so real as to make me rethink all those Dylan albums I took from my dad.
Unfortunately, the characters aren’t quite as compelling as their setting. Queens native Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a failing folk singer who lost his musical partner and is trying to make it on his own and his cynicism for the folk movement in New York is palpable. The perpetual sneer he wears around his fellow musicians, most of which he seems to see as either sellouts or fools, is only matched by his prickly and self-destructive exterior. He is, simply put, an asshole. And the characters who surround him aren’t much better. Jim (Justin Timberlake) is a touchy-feely commercial success, who Llewyn seems to find an annoyance and Jeane (Carey Mulligan), Jim’s perpetually irate wife and former lover of Llewyn, is such a one-note figure it’s hard to feel sympathy for her at all. The only emotion we ever see on her face is vitreous anger. From them, to the snooty world of Columbia professors and colleagues (none of whom seem to possess an ounce of critical thought), and Llewyn’s frustrating family (a silent, glaring, shell shocked father and a shrill, dismissive sister), there seems to be no one in New York City that Llewyn can stand.
Like many of the Coens’ characters Llewyn Davis is vaguely based on a real person—Dave Van Ronk, a folk singer from Brooklyn who Bob Dylan called “king of the street” in 60’s Greenwich Village. But the Coens aren’t satisfied with a biopic, and so they play with that authenticity. Like the title screen that famously accompanied Fargo saying it was based on a true story, their basis of Llewyn on Van Ronk is a red herring. To borrow the words from another of the Coens’ characters—this time Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men—it’s certainly true that it is a story. Llewyn’s narcissistic folk singer has more to do with Barton Fink or Larry Gopnik of A Serious Man than he does with Van Ronk, with a touch of the prickly Walter Sobachak of The Big Lebowski. He is a by-the-book antihero, a selfish, ill-mannered, misanthrope with enough in the way of charm and crappy circumstances to elicit pity. And boy does he step in a lot of crap.
From the second Llewyn puts down the guitar and enters into the real world (following the opening shot: a soulful rendition of Hang Me, Oh Hang Me) he is beaten up, broke, homeless, and saddled with a orange cat that doesn’t belong to him. He signs away a (potential) fortune, witnesses a drug overdose and an unlawful arrest, has several emotional breakdowns, and generally draws the short straw again and again. But through all of that, he never fully gives up his driving hope and dream to make it as a folk singer. And maybe that’s what makes this movie compelling. Despite being an asshole, he is an asshole with a dream, and that makes him worthy of following.
In what is, for me, the film’s most central scene, Llewyn ends up at his sister’s place in Queens, one of those bland 60’s developments that miniaturized the ranch-style manor to a New York scale. His sister is of the un-hip New York crowd from the 60’s, the Betty Draper to Llewyn’s Bob Dylan, and she suggests that if he isn’t making it as a musician, he should take a job as a merchant marine. Incredulous—as giving up and going for a normal life is so unthinkable to someone who has devoted so much of their essential being to their art—Llewyn looks at her and says, “Just . . . exist?” That line, though brief, packs quite a punch. The rest of the film’s ups and downs can be accounted for all by his unshakable attempt to do more than just exist. Just existing is not a conceivable option for Llewyn Davis, and so even though all of these terrible things keep happening to him, it’s really the only way.
But despite his personal faults, Llewyn’s cyclical trip makes for quite a compelling ride. He walks in and out of the lives of dozens of characters bouncing from Jim and Jeane’s couch to interactions with Roland Turner (John Goodman), an overweight jazz musician with twin canes and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a silent, chain-smoking driver. He even crashes for a day or two in the tiny apartment of fellow folk-music hopeful Al Cody, who—like Llewyn—has a box full of his own unsuccessful solo album stashed under an end table. (A Twin Cities based aside, here. During Llewyn’s stay with Al Cody, it is revealed is legally named “Albert Milgram,” when he receives a letter. Could this be a local shout out to legendary Twin Cities film icon Al Milgrom? The Coens are from Minnesota after all . . .) These interactions, though largely serendipitous and tangential, seem to flesh out a larger world. If Llewyn were more likable, this would be a good way to learn more about him, but as he is such a jerk, it simply serves as an interesting and exciting romp with a varied cast.
And Llewyn’s selfish narcissism is what makes this film good instead of great. This is, in essence, The Big Lebowski without Donny, that good-natured humanness that is the invisible glue holding together a whole bunch of assholes. And while it is a fun ride, and fun to watch the Coens continue to ruin more things in Llewyn’s sad existence, it becomes in the end a less meaningful exercise. If his heart were just two sizes larger, this movie might be complete, but until then it’s just a stupendous period piece and a cynical condemnation of the American folk revival.