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Movie review: 'Inside Llewyn Davis' a trivial pursuit

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Inside Llewyn Davis


After the 2003 Christopher Guest comedy, A Mighty Wind, it's not too clear that the world needed - or wanted - another movie set in the world of folk music. Thanks to the Coen Brothers, we now get a much more serious take on the life of a folk musician with Inside Llewyn Davis (opening today).

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As the title implies, the film follows a man by the name of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). He is a homeless drifter, a vagabond musician who occasionally plays gigs at a local dive bar that features other performers in the genre. He is one half of a folk duo, but his other half found the life so rough that he threw himself from the George Washington bridge. Davis longs for those times, but even then it wasn't like they had any real success.

In and out of Llewyn's life is the vitriol-filled Jean (Carey Mulligan), whom had a regrettable past fling with Llewyn. She is now in her own duo with her boyfriend, Jim (Justin Timberlake). Llewyn tries to leech off of her for a few nights but her bitterness drives him back to the streets. He also takes advantage of the generosity shown by another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), from time to time.

It is at the Gorfein's one morning where Llewyn slips out, accidentally letting out the Gorfein's cat, Ulysses. When the door locks, Llewyn has no choice but to lug this cat around with him.

As Llewyn grows tired of the dark, dank bar life, Jim gets him to sit in on a studio session recording. Llewyn needs the cash from the session because his out-of-touch manager isn't doing anything for him. In exchange for the cash, Llewyn signs away his rights to collect any royalties from the session. From what we know of poor Llewyn, that song will probably be a major hit, and it just goes to show the direction his fortune takes in this world (the song, "Please Mr. Kennedy," is quite hilarious and destined for Oscar recognition, especially if they can land Justin Timberlake to perform).

Now it's time for full-disclosure: I am not a fan of the Coen Brothers. Never have been...and that's an all-inclusive statement. For years I've carried this as some sort of movie-lover's deficiency. It's not that I despise all of their movies (although I do loathe O Brother, Where Art Thou?, A Serious Man and Barton Fink, amongst a few others), it's just that I've never fully connected with a one of them. That means you, Raising Arizona, Fargo and The Big Lebowski. I try to hold this disappointment at bay when viewing each new Coen Brothers film that is released. Perhaps I'm not able to fight it? Am I missing the Coen Brothers gene?

So if you aren't able to tell where this is going, I'll spell it out. It's with heavy-heart that I report to you that Inside Llewyn Davis also failed to connect with me. Disregard my review as coming from a "Coen-hater" if you'd like, but hear me out.

First of all, Inside Llewyn Davis is much less "Coen-esque" than many of their other films. There are a few humorous exchanges and the essential John Goodman cameo, but the tone of this film is much darker, much more somber than previous efforts. Narratively, the film is disjointed. We never even get what the film's title suggests, and that's inside this man. We do get a character study of what it was like to be a struggling musician in the 60s and Oscar Isaac gives a very good performance. But by the time this one wraps up, the Coens take this simplistic story and complicate things with a preposterous twist - a la No Country For Old Men - that only goes to exercise their most pretentious bones.

They allude to some deeper, metaphoric themes involving the cat, it's name (Ulysses), its purpose and the 1963 Walt Disney film The Incredible Journey, which featured a cat and two dogs on a trek to find their home. What does it all mean? The bigger question I left with: Who cares?

I may have cared a bit more to explore some of these themes, but the movie deterred me from doing so. There isn't any reason to spend that sort of time on a film that has nothing to offer us about its characters. Llewyn is surrounded by several paper-thin supporting players, and by himself, we learn all we ever need to know about him in the film's opening number.

Inside Llewyn Davis isn't awful, but it just lazily exists. Forget comparisons to Coen Brothers films of the past, as this critic doesn't believe there is much to measure against. On its own, it's just a less funny, less compelling and overly serious version of A Mighty Wind. But here's hoping that "Please Mr. Kennedy" gets Oscar air-time much like the Mitch & Micky classic, "A Kiss At The End of the Rainbow." It's definitely deserved.

Genre: Drama, Music

Run Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, Rated R

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund

Directed by Ethan & Joel Coen (True Grit, A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona)

Opens locally on Friday, Dec 20, 2013 (check for show times).

Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment, airing at 10:30 p.m. EST every Sunday, on MYTV20 in Detroit.

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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

  • 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
  • 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
  • 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
  • 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
  • 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time

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