Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the first Coen Brothers movie by way of Wes Anderson, and that's most definitely not a good thing. This lethargic evocation of the New York folk music scene circa 1961 is highly stylized and handsomely mounted, with unimpeachable production design, but totally lacking in human feeling. 

The movie's a week in the life of Llewyn Davis, an aspiring singer and guitarist and a mostly (but not totally) reactive character played by Oscar Isaac in a performance more likely to earn him momentary nomination buzz than another major starring role. Llewyn's a leech - a connoisseur of couches - and a Joe Btfsplk type who leaves lost and bloodily maimed cats (a nasty and unfunny motif) and unwanted pregnancies in his wake. One belongs to Carey Mulligan as Jean Berkey, half (with Justin Timberlake) of a husband-wife folk duo on the verge of modest (very modest) success. The problem with the picture can be summed up in the character of Jean, who's less a human being than a single seven-letter epithet hurled at Llewyn dozens of times in a variety of intonations. (All the women in the movie are treated shabbily or worse.) 

There are two or three moments of well-documented comic relief. John Goodman comes in, as he's done through the Coens' filmography, to inject some wit and vigor into the proceedings as a jazz musician who shares a car with Llewyn (and a totally wasted Garrett Hedlund) to Chicago. Earlier, Llewyn, in need of quick cash, recorded a novelty song ("Please Mr. Kennedy, don't shoot me into outer space") that amuses with its earwig awfulness. But then, when he arrives in Chicago and plays for the producer Bud Grossman (forgotten man F. Murray Abraham, channeling Alan Arkin), who pronounces "I don't hear a lot of money here" and suggests Llewyn join a trio with two other guys he's grooming, it feels purely arbitrary for Llewyn to tell him off and storm out.

The rest of the movie's humor is the kind that backs up in your throat. It's based on cruelty of various kinds - to animals, to women - and a generalized sort of misanthropy. In writing this script, it's clear Joel Coen cared more about sounding clever than in investing his characters with fleshed-out identities and honest dignity. He and Ethan are two of our premier American filmmakers, but they've had a few dogs (anyone remember "Ladykillers"? Woof). They must police themselves vigilantly, never succumbing to the smug cynicism and misplaced priorities that have made Anderson a self-parody from the start (though some folks are just now catching wise). 

"Inside Llewyn Davis" ends with the same couple of scenes it started with, repeated verbatim. I'm not sure what the Coens are suggesting. Does this week keep happening? Did it never happen at all? I just worried I'd been caught in an infinite loop. And unlike some, I'm not going to feign, on the occasion of this picture's release, an interest in this whiny and whitebread music. Let's talk in a year and you can tell me just how many times you've actually listened to this soundtrack.

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