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Movie review: 'Inside Llewyn Davis' lives within the struggling artist lifestyle

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Inside Llewyn Davis

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INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS-- 3 STARS

It was Oscar Wilde that famously said "life imitates art more than art imitates life." When that mantra gets applied to cinema, we commonly talk about how we, as audiences, live vicariously through the imagination and fantasies that films create for us. The first part of that quote gets talked about all the time in that way. It's not too often that the second half of that quote comes true, but I feel that Ethan and Joel Coen have achieved just that with their latest feature film, Inside Llewyn Davis. As a fictional documentation and internal look at a crucial week-long journey in the life of an aspiring folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village within New York City, Inside Llewyn Davis uniquely feels more like a film taking on real life than one pretending the other way around, as is so often the case with movies. While unique, I don't know if that's necessarily a good thing. Let me explain.

Gifted character actor Oscar Issac, hidden to many in villain and minor roles in films like Robin Hood, Sucker Punch, and The Bourne Legacy, stars as the title character, a struggling and pretty much homeless folk singer who habitually crashes on buddies' couches for days at a time. We meet him waking up in the Upper West Side apartment of the well-to-do Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett). A long subway ride takes him back to the Village. It's the winter of 1961 just before some guy from Minnesota named Bob Dylan blew the folk music scene wide open. Llewyn eeks out a living playing open mic gigs at the Gaslight Cafe. His talent and vigor has lost a step since his musical partner Mike (a heard-but-unseen Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons) committed suicide a few years back. He has since cut a solo record that isn't selling or bringing in royalties.

One of the West Village couches he frequently seeks belongs to a fellow singer and ex-flame of his named Jean Berkey (the excellent Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan). He's quite a regular asshole to her (the same way he is to everyone else) and she hates his guts. Jean has since been married to the trendy and stable Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake), with whom she forms a performing trio with their Army buddy Troy Nelson (Stark Sands of Flags of Our Fathers). The tension between Jean and Llewyn is made worse when she realizes she is pregnant and fears it's his child. She insists on an abortion, pushing Llewyn to scrounge for money to pay for it.

Unknowing of the pregnancy, Jim offers Llewyn a pity paycheck record gig playing backup guitar and vocals with himself and another friend named Al Cody (Adam Driver of HBO's Girls) on a cheesy Space Era novelty song entitled "Please Mr. Kennedy." He takes the instant $200 and skips signing up for any royalties. Tired and desperate, Llewyn meets a cantankerous jazz musician named Roland Turner (Coen regular John Goodman) and his valet Johnny Five (Tron: Legacy's Garrett Hedlund) through Al for a long road trip to Chicago to take one last shot at impressing club owner Bud Grossman (Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham) for a paying gig at the city's famed Gate of Horn club.

Here's the thing about Inside Llewyn Davis being an example of art imitating life for a change. This film covers roughly a week's worth of time and watches Llewyn's every move as a struggling artist. The problem is the film is as aimless and unmotivated as the couch-crashing struggling artist you're picturing. His crappy life is your crappy experience. I get that this tone of melancholy is specifically written as a deliberate character arch that the Coen brothers wanted to tell with black comedy, but there are no peaks and valleys. This is just a collection of valleys happening to a hardly likable character. I'm not saying Inside Llewyn Davis had to be some happy ending success story of asshole redemption with a cute "where are they now" epilogue as a cherry on top, but I felt more was needed than a few failed gigs and one road trip to constitute a moving or entertaining experience. I felt like I was watching Nebraska again for its destitute plainness and minimal character transition or comeuppance.

While this movie boasts a wide and eclectic ensemble cast around Oscar Isaac, only one of those connected musicians and characters last remotely long enough to make a sustaining and interesting impression. The only one is Carey Mulligan's Jean. She doesn't get a musical number that rivals her tragically haunting rendition of "New York, New York" from Shame two years ago, but her scenes with Isaac are stellar, comedic, and filled with dark humor. The rest might as well be as interchangeable as the couches Llewyn crashes on. They get their scene or two and that's it. The personalities come and go like half-spent cigarettes or highway mile markers. They might nail what scenes and lines they got, but it still feels short-changed in the grand scheme of things.

By the time we come towards the end with an episode meeting Llewyn's mute Merchant Marine father, we're checked out and scratching our heads as to what really matters. It's a little disappointing when the most memorable and fun connected character not named Jean is the runaway cat Llewyn comes to care for briefly. How does a cat outperform the likes of Goodman, Timberlake, Driver, Abraham, and others? Maybe the Coen brothers are up to their usual brilliant underplaying tricks, but I, for one, didn't get it. Their usual genius is lost on me this time. I can't say this is the first time this has happened to me trying to see the bigger point of it all from a Coen brothers movie. All of their movies have their innate enigma quality that some love obsessively for the uniqueness and others loathe for the obscurity. I am in the latter with Inside Llewyn Davis.

Where Inside Llewyn Davis does impress is with the talent happening in front of the camera. Produced by T. Bone Burnett, the musical selections in this movie are quite impressive. Other than one minor lip-synced Irish act, every actor and actress performed their own songs on the spot. Each song was earnestly sung in full length and shot in single takes on set, creating an unmatched feel of witnessing a live performance. This film and its soundtrack will greatly appeal to fans of the 1960's folk scene and also the recent hipster revival of indie folk lead by artists like Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave, Bon Iver, Ray LaMontagne, Mumford and Sons, Cat Power, and countless other niche artists and trendier names.

Even with the outstandingly detailed and fascinating period authenticity, quirky-at-times dark comedy, and a multitude of versatile musical talent on display, I can't follow suit with the big-wig critics and call Inside Llewyn Davis one of the best films of the year. It falls well short of special. Oscar Isaac is indeed a standout worthy of being considered in the Best Actor race at the Academy Awards and the soundtrack will likely compete with Frozen in the two musical categories, but that's it. If you pick up just this movie's soundtrack album and play it, that will be all you need to experience.

Inside Llewyn Davis is playing now at exclusive engagements in the Chicagoland area, including the AMC River East 21 downtown.

LESSON #1: HOW EXACTLY TO BE AN ASSHOLE-- Want to be an asshole? Here are a few tips. Bum and beg for money from friends without the chance of paying them back. Crash on their couches inconveniently, lose their cat, and eat their food. Yell at your siblings. Piss and moan to non-siblings, work associates, your superiors, and those same friends who offered you a place to crash. Bite the hand that feeds. Heckle other musicians on stage. Possibly get your friend's wife pregnant and skimp on the abortion money. Go that route and you're set.

LESSON #2: THE RAMBLER LIFESTYLE OF THE CLASSIC "STRUGGLING ARTIST"-- Llewyn, beyond his asshole tendencies, is your classic "struggling artist." It's all about the next gig. He struggles to make ends meet with no long-term plans and drifts from one paying job to another with nothing steady. Through it all, he's quick to point out his talent and freedom being opposite to those trapped in a 9-5 job. The classic struggling artist thinks their talent makes them better than the rest of us who let go of fanciful dreams long before. Nothing is ever good enough and the rest of us are "square" losers. They think they should be appreciated for that stance when they are actually about two steps above being a bum.

LESSON #3: MUSIC AS A PROFESSION INSTEAD OF A PASSION-- With Lesson #2 being said, the thing that separates Llewyn from being like most typical struggling artists is why he does his music. He is quick to state that music, for him, is a profession and a paycheck. He loathes the careerist nature of other performers looking for advancement. It's not a passion anymore. The passion he started with is gone and music is now simply a means to avoid real work. Most struggling artists are quick to tout that they are following their passion, but Llewyn is only following greenbacks and respect. Worse, that lack of passion isn't showing up in his music and what keeps him from being a true success. The successful artists put passion into their work and its what gets them noticed to us audiences.

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