Inside Llewyn Davis presents a sofa-surfing singer struggling to survive in a world that’s not quite ready for his melancholic musical stylings. It’s a 1961 pre-Dylan Greenwich Village, where the coffeehouses serve up potfuls of pretension and poetry, along with folk music that hasn’t yet plumbed the depths of the human condition. It’s the stuff of all the great Coen Brothers’ films: Losers who are lost in a world that they cannot control, knocked about incessantly by external forces -- until something gives.
The masterfulness of this film is in its literal folk tale telling of how stupid intelligent people can be, how smart unexamined lives can be, and how all of us are victims of the great Whatever.
Llewyn Davis’ folk singing friends, Jim and Jean, a couple played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, are the energetic side of the stereotypical emerging artists of the Greenwich Village scene during the beat period. Jean, pregnant with possibly her husband’s baby -- or Llewyn’s, lays it all out to our unlovable anti-hero: “You don’t wanna go anywhere. And that’s why all the same shit is going to keep happening to you. Because you want it to.... And also because you’re an asshole.”
That pretty well sets the stage for Davis, the master of folk music and misanthropy. How much melancholy can a man exude and express? About two hours worth. Along the way, Llewyn ponders his existence as he potties and reads graffiti on the public bathroom stall: “What are you doing?” The literal and metaphorical answer commingled is -- trying to eliminate the crap from his life by staying true to his convictions. But the world would rather he just wipe, flush, and leave.
Midstream, the story tickles us with a naive novelty song his friend Jim has written, which Llewyn helps record for a small stipend. That song, among all the other deeper, more meaningful songs Llewyn croons, appears destined to become a hit -- perhaps because it is a cleverly reflective, politically pea-brained parody of the space race -- an unassuming snarky commentary on the New Frontier. It’s a song that is antithetical to the kind of music that Llewyn is creating (which no one is buying). Though his previous album with his now deceased partner, who committed suicide off the George Washington Bridge, sold well and was promising enough for the label to release his solo effort, the sales of Inside Llewyn Davis are flatlined. There’s no buzz about the creative effort, only sarcasm from friends and colleagues. Like many of his monotonic songs from the album, the word on the street is that Llewyn is his own worst enemy. He deliberately sabotages himself, just like Jean told him days earlier.
Recovering from his music partner’s suicide, Davis is bleak as he blunders through a week’s worth of living, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, symbolically conveyed by toting about a cat that escaped from a professor’s apartment who hosts him in exchange for some in-home performances with the hip intelligentsia. The cat bookends the storyline: Like the tabby, Llewyn is the cool cat who can’t convince anyone of note that he’s worth picking up. He’s only worth giving a dish of cream to -- or a place to curl up for the night, on his feckless journey into the great unknown void of tomorrow morning. In the grand scheme, Davis is a cat himself, climbing in and out of windows to take cat naps on couches. There’s a great scene in the film where Llewyn leaves a message for his professor: “Don’t worry; Llewyn has the cat.” The person taking the call repeats the message: “Llewyn is the cat.” There it is. Pretty direct -- and totally Coen. Add the cherry on top: the cat's name is Ulysses.
Like the key cat in the film who, after running out the window, eventually finds his way home, Llewyn too finds his way back into the club scene (following a detour to the merchant marine office where he learns he’s too poor to afford to renew his license). He is, ostensibly, a survivor, despite himself.
By being true to himself -- and stupidly brash in the face of opportunities, Davis hits rock bottom, drunk and heckling a pretentious performer at the Gaslight Cafe. He has learned well; Llewyn is the target of ridicule throughout the film. He also gets heckled by a heroin-addicted jazz musician, cockily played by the unabashed bluesy John Goodman, during a surreal road trip to Chicago to visit a music manager. When the Chicago impresario, Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), allows a spontaneous audition, he suggestively taps on Davis’ solo album and says, “Play me something from -- Inside Llewyn Davis.” The wry delivery is a challenge, tinged in heavy sarcasm. Music industry pros, as the trope goes, aren’t visionaries like the artistic geniuses who breakthrough commonplace sounds and dare to express something new. Following a performance of one of the most introspective songs that embraces Davis’ meal-to-meal morose manner, Grossman declares: “I don’t see the money in it.” It’s written on Davis’ face: But, of course you don’t! Because you’re one of the dunces who can’t spot genius. Davis rights himself and stands to leave, turning down a gig to be in a group that Grossman is putting together. This is the moment we’re totally inside Llewyn Davis. He is a solo act and won’t sacrifice himself for the lesser good.
Doing the right thing just can’t get in the way of his aimless musical career. We find out that Llewyn is so creative and fertile that every woman he has been with has become impregnated. He discovers that his first creation that he set up for an abortion is still alive, because the woman who carried his progeny decided to keep the baby and move to Akron. But given the opportunity to veer his way to Akron whilst on a car trip to pursue his dream, he does the irresponsible thing -- drive by the exit that would take him into a world where he is a father, not a bohemian performer. Instead, like the cat he leaves behind in the car on the turnpike, that’s just too much responsibility for a loser like himself, who knows in his heart that his music is presently the most profound thing on the scene. One must not allow a cat or a baby to get in the way. Like the baby that evades destruction, Llewyn’s music lives on in his soul, determined to find an audience.
The story ends on a note of hopefulness: the silhouetted presence and outlined visage of Bob Dylan appears at the Gaslight Cafe. He ponders the Guthriesque Dylan sound: “Oh, it’s fare thee well...,” then steps outside into the alley, only to get his face bashed in -- not by a bohemian badass, but by the husband of the fat folk singer he heckled earlier. It’s a potent moment, as the man leaves in a taxi, Llewyn finally throws a punch in the form of a mocking mumble, “Au revoir.” Yes, goodbye to the likes of those pompous and pretentious players who crowded the stage and confused audiences about what is good and what is bad. The loser we’ve come to love because he makes us feel better about our own lives staggers up from the ground. A week has passed -- and Llewyn has lived a life of misfortune and hell -- enough to break most aspiring performers. But now, the times have seemingly caught up with him. Perhaps -- because of his convictions and passion, what’s inside Llewyn Davis is about to be let loose. The physical assault of reality has delivered its final blow -- and he’s still standing. Isn’t that the ultimate hope for all artists? The losers and the winners -- what often keeps them apart is just timing. Perseverance eventually allows bad timing to adjust itself. The tragedy is for those who give up -- who, like Llewyn’s partner, throw themselves off of meaningless bridges into obscurity. You just never know when that week comes when you’re no longer on the edge, resisting the urge the jump. One must imagine Llewyn is on the cusp of something bigger than the George Washington Bridge.
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