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'Inside Llewyn Davis' review: The Coen Brothers' dull folk tale is a rare miss

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Inside Llewyn Davis

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There’s been a whole lot of raving about “Inside Llewyn Davis”, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen. Oscar Isaac(perhaps best known for his work in “Drive”) was nominated for a Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy Golden Globe earlier this month, and the film itself is nominated in the corresponding Best Motion Picture category. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise to find that a lot of the to-do is unjustified. “Inside Llewyn Davis” has its humorous moments, but it is a film that relies a bit too much on the musical performances to move it forward, as opposed to just letting them enhance the film. This might be because Llewyn Davis just isn’t that interesting of a character to begin with.

There is almost enough singing and guitar strumming going on to label the film a musical. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory, as long as the performances aren’t substitution for story development. “Inside Llewyn Davis” nearly does a 360 to the point where the viewer watches the same performance twice over before the film ends. And at a runtime of an hour and 45 minutes, that is a lot of time spent avoiding dialogue.

It’s sad to see John Goodman’s talents wasted here. Oddly, he spends most of his brief screen time either passed out or snoring. The other few moments he’s spouting off comedic relief, the best stuff being the one-liners found in the theatrical trailer and TV spots. His character certainly isn’t no Charlie Meadows, the scene-stealing role he played in the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink.” Considering Goodman’s frequent collaborations with the directors, it’s tough to understand why Goodman’s role is so underwritten.

But that can be said for several of the roles in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Of course, the film is about Davis, so why have so many other characters to begin with? Perhaps they should have been left on the cutting room floor, as opposed to being cut to razor-thin margins. Most of what comes out of Johnny Five’s(Garrett Hedlund) mouth is nearly impossible to understand, and as Roland Turner’s(Goodman) driver, he spends nearly as little time onscreen as Goodman does. Justin Timberlake hangs around just enough to sing a couple of songs. Aside from the cat Llewyn ends up caring for, the only one hanging around him the most is Jean(Carey Mulligan). She’s pregnant, but she’s with Jim(Timberlake) and doesn’t know if it is his or Llewyn’s. Therefore, she wants Llewyn to pay for her abortion. So this is a comedy, eh?

Well, a Coen Brothers comedy will never be like other comedies. But “Inside Llewyn Davis” feels just a little to thin to ride high upon its quirky characters. Perhaps that’s the issue: the film focuses mostly on Davis, who isn’t all that quirky to begin with. Basically, he’s a bum, and his m.o. consists of leeching off anyone around him; sleeping on couches, bumming smokes and thumbing rides. That’s not a personality, and by the time the film is about to wrap up the audience is far more exhausted of it than even Llewyn is. And when the Coen Brothers decide to employ a rather lazy and overused screenwriting gimmick late in the film, it certainly feels like they were just searching for an ending. Llewyn Davis’ story feels like it will go on forever, and that is a big problem. A great movie can go on forever if it explores a compelling character, but in the case of this chord-picking bum, the viewer just wants it to end.

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