Here we meet Llewyn Davis, a man young enough to believe in his dream but old enough to have a track record behind him. A 1960’s American folk musician struggling for survival by couch surfing and performing in “basket clubs” (receiving a portion of the donation vs. a pre-arranged figure), Llewyn has reached a crossroads. Either he creates or catches a break, or he returns to his day job.
The trouble for Llewyn is that he lacks the insight necessary to discern why he’s having such a tough time. And the trouble for us is that when our time with him is through, we've spent two hours at the altar of Coen without much to take home after. (I’ll mitigate that sentence in a minute.)
Now, I don’t have to like a character; I don’t have to approve of the behavior; I don’t have to find the subject matter to be palatable. If a writer brings me along, I will follow him/her/them anywhere: burying someone alive, leaving babies atop moving vehicles, characters that in the real world would be cause for caution and even perhaps evaluation, and any number or manner of tight spots and wood chippers.
I will follow the writer’s lead pert’near anywhere, but it has to be a dance. And circa 2007, with the exception of "True Grit" as a remake, the Coens began taking our adoration for granted. They stopped leading, and started expecting following. (And/or stopped caring whether or not we followed; fair enough.)
It’s beyond scope today to discuss the implied contract between writer and reader/audience and the rules of fiction (such as killing a protagonist, or ending abruptly and leaving the audience hanging ~ vs. stunned, big difference), but suffice to say that if one breaks them, it must be done elegantly.
It must be unequivocally necessary to moving the story forward, it can’t tamper with the audience’s orientation as nurtured by the writer, and there must be other characters to process the fallout on behalf of the audience. Without these (and more, subject for another day), the writer cuts the audience loose, betrays the trust represented by suspension of disbelief. Or worse, does so for the writer’s own gratification and thus toys with the audience’s affection.
The Coens have been playing fast and loose with these rules for a while now, and while if anyone has earned the right to do so they certainly have, but doesn't change the larger context. In this case they breeze over a dangerous situation bearing serious consequence with an O Brother level of quirk. Is this a dealbreaker for "Inside Llewyn Davis"? No, and actually "Inside Llewyn Davis" is more congruent than its recent predecessors. But in general it keeps us at arm’s length, and taken over the course of the Coens’ body of work, it’s become a disappointing shift.
The addition of a mere five words in two lines of dialogue on a dark, snowy roadside would have reconciled the issue. And given the Coens’ superlative skill, I have to believe they knew this, and opted differently. Therein, as sayeth the Bard, lies the rub.
All this said, technical execution of "Inside Llewyn Davis" is nothing short of magnificent, and performances of the customarily solid and often quirky characters excel across the board; the bite of the New York/Chicago winter freezes in perfect portrayal of Llewyn's winter of the soul. Oscar Isaac as Llewyn anchors very nearly every scene in the film without flagging, and his musical talent stands in its own right. There is absolutely no compromise in any character between acting ability and musical skill.
The performance of "Please Mr. Kennedy" by Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver is worth the price of admission alone. Written by the Coens, Timberlake, Burnett, and Ed Rush and George Cromarty, the song is so complex, offbeat, and entertaining that it’s a wonder it could emerge from one mind, let alone six (the epitome of sum greater than parts). The soundtrack includes standards and arrangements by greats of the folk scene past and present.
"Inside Llweyn Davis" is one of those projects which was probably more fun for the creators than for the audience. If you’re the Coen fan for whom they can do no wrong (and I myself am this way with certain filmmakers), then make all haste. If you’re a fan of folk music in general, and of T-Bone Burnett in particular ("Crazy Heart"), the experience will delight. And if you’re looking for the dance, just know that you won’t find it here.
But far be it from me to steer you away from what just may be the masterpiece of your year.
Story: A 1960's American folk musician faces a professional crossroad as he struggles against winter's bite, the toughness of the music business, and the failings of his own character.
Genre: Drama, Musical (essentially)
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Garrett Hedlund, Stark Sands, F. Murray Abraham
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Running time: 105 minutes
Official site: http://www.insidellewyndavis.com/splash
Houston release date: December 20, 2013
Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings
Screened Dec 11th 2013 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX