Friday, January 24, 2014

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2013: Inside Llewyn Davis

 Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002) was a particularly influential figure in the New York folk music scene during the early 1960s, to the point he was nicknamed "The Mayor of MacDougal Street." Among other clubs for music and poetry on MacDougal Street was the Gaslight Cafe, and Van Ronk's fourth album went by the title "Inside Dave Van Ronk." After reading Elijah Wald's The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Joel and Ethan Coen decided to make their follow-up to True Grit a true-ish story about the folk music scene in the very early 60s.

Inside Llewyn Davis opens and closes in 1961 at the Gaslight Cafe, where Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is performing, possibly for the last time. Increasingly frustrated by musicians around him finding success with insipid lyrics and trite gimmicks, Davis has been abandoned by his agent and told he isn't commercial enough by the most influential folk club in Chicago. His previous musical life as a duo ended abruptly, but everyone wants to talk about his old partner. He has nowhere to live, doesn't have enough money, and is stuck with a cat he doesn't want. Oh, and some guy just beat him up in the alleyway behind the club.

  Joel and Ethan Coen's latest film may be their most depressing effort to date, and this is from the brothers who brought us Barton Fink and No Country for Old Men. And yet, it resonated deeply with me. Yes, it's a relentlessly downbeat movie, whose laughs come tinged with a sardonic bite, mostly tied to Llewyn's disgust for other musicians. He asks his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) is the "singing soldier" Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) if he "serves a higher purpose," because he can't believe people take him seriously. Jim's girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) despises Llewyn, and at her kindest regards him with contempt. It's all the more complicated because Jean is pregnant, and she's not sure if it's Jim's or Llewyn's, so Davis has to pony up the money to terminate it. He doesn't have it, and can't ask Jim without Jean finding out. Llewyn's life is a series of bad, impulsive decisions - at least for the week we spend with him.

 Instead of a story of "has been's," Inside Llewyn Davis is a story of a "never was," punctuated with the presence of a legend in the making, but more on that in a little bit. Llewyn moans and groans about how horrible many of the other songs are, but he doesn't write his own material (like Jim), he just performs songs "you might have heard before." After all, they "were never new and they never get old, and it's folk music." As ridiculous as many of the songs in the film seem to Llewyn (and, by proxy, the audience), at least one of them, "500 Miles" was a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary. A novelty song that Davis records with Jim and Al Cody (Adam Driver) about Kennedy and the space program could net him royalties, but afraid to tell Mel (Jerry Grayson), his agent, that he took a "for hire" gig, he takes a quick payout and signs away any future earnings. But at least his sister Joy (Jeanine Seralles) thinks he's a famous musician.

 Audiences have been lukewarm to Inside Llewyn Davis, perhaps because the titular character is so unlikeable, so pessimistic. To be fair, most of the characters in the film are hard to warm to, either because they're horrible people or because Llewyn hates them for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Troy Nelson seems to be a nice guy, but Davis regards him with nothing but disdain. When Llewyn takes a job riding to Chicago with washed up jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman), he's continually insulted for not playing "real" music and finds no help in the monosyllabic Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), Turner's driver. Even the cat wants to get away - Davis is initially stuck with him when he escapes the apartment of Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), but Llewyn is insistent of keeping the cat around, even when he realizes he brought the wrong one back to the Gorfeins.

 It is true that Inside Llewyn Davis is a tricky movie to like, even by the Coen brothers standards, but after I finished it (and enjoyed it), days later I found it stuck with me. I kept thinking about the film, and I needed to watch it again. Like Barton Fink, it makes an immediate impression, but also grows on you. There's a sadness in the hopelessness of Llewyn's story, but beneath that I sense a desire to make something, to do something with your life, even if things clearly aren't working out. Llewyn's  stubbornness to do it on his terms up until nearly the end of the film that counterbalances the jaded and cynical characters. But don't expect even a sliver of hope as Inside Llewyn Davis comes to a close: you won't find it. Strange for a movie based on someone considered by most to be jovial and beloved.

 Which brings us back to the first paragraph: Inside Llewyn Davis is "based on" (or even "inspired by") Dave Van Ronk in the same way that O Brother, Where Art Thou is "based on" The Odyssey: it's more of a springboard to tell their own story than an account of the influential and beloved Mayor of MacDougal Street. There are a few actual connections: most of the songs Oscar Isaac performs are ones you'll find on Dave Van Ronk albums; Jim and Jean were an actual duo, and they aren't the only actual people to make it into this fictionalized version of the folk scene. Inside Llewyn Davis closes with perhaps the most potent juxtaposition between our "never was" protagonist and arguably the most famous figure to emerge from the New York folk scene. Blink and you'll miss the silhouette of the singer who follows Llewyn, but once they start playing, you'll know exactly who it is. The song, playing over a scene we were presented without context at the opening of the film, is a potent coda for Inside Llewyn Davis.

 What helps, I think, to ease the bleakness of the story is T-Bone Burnett's choices in music, performed almost entirely by the actor on camera singing. Isaac sings all of Llewyn's songs, and while we only see his partner Mike Timlin on a record sleeve, he's joined by Marcus Mumford for "Dink's Song (Fare Thee Well)" an upbeat tune that eases the on-screen frustration of our protagonist. Fans of folk music are going to find plenty of lesser known songs to recognize (even "Please Mr. Kennedy" is an actual song) while audiences who don't know the scene so well might simply assumed they were invented for the film. The music serves a similar effect as in O Brother to move the narrative along and to punctuate important moments.

 I don't know if Inside Llewyn Davis is going to stick with the rest of you the way it did with me. It is true that I am a fan of the Coen brothers, and it won't take too much digging on this site to find a series of essays on their films. Where does this fit into their body of work? Into their (increasingly downplayed or outright denied) auteur canon? Well, there is a continued theme of "true" art being crushed by commerce, or feeling de-legitimized and surrounded by mediocrity that's evident in Barton Fink. John Goodman returns for the first time since O Brother, Where Art Thou, and it has a similarly begotten upon protagonist as A Serious Man. There's even a shot of windshield wipers in rain that immediately brought Blood Simple to mind, as strange as that might sound.

 This is not the affable Coen brothers that audiences tend to embrace, and there's little of the quirky charm found in Fargo, but if you liked The Man Who Wasn't There or A Serious Man or Barton Fink, I think you'll enjoy Inside Llewyn Davis. A darker Coen brothers movie is still something working paying attention to, but be prepared to work a little bit. They won't make it easy on you, and in this film in particular, nothing comes easy. But the soundtrack helps. And the cat acting - I know they hated working with cats, but how they got some of those shots is mighty impressive. Cat acting... that seems like a good place to leave this review on. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to listen to "Dink's Song" again...

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