Tuesday, February 4, 2014

I Wish I Liked "Llewyn Davis" More

I'm a long time Coen brothers fan. I've seen all their movies, even the obscure ones, even the ones they just wrote for other directors, and I hold them in very high regard. So it bothers me more than it probably should that many critics have been raving about their latest film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," and I came out of it unmoved. Sure, I think it's a very strong film, and after sitting through most of this year's Best Picture nominees I can say with certainty that it's better than at least half of them. However, I didn't connect with it the way I've connected with so many of the Coens' other films, so I find it tough to really champion this one.

The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, is a folk singer in the early 60s, struggling through a long winter in New York. He's talented, but has been unsuccessful in his attempts to make a living as a working musician. Perpetually broke, he stays with one friend after another, ineffectually harassing his agent Mel (Jerry Grayson) for owed payments and more gigs. We watch him bounce from one missed opportunity to the next and the calamities keep piling on. He stays with an older couple, the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), accidentally lets out their cat, and ends up having to take it with him for the day. He's friends with a more successful folk duo, Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake). Jean reveals she's pregnant after a one night stand with Llewyn and demands that he pay for the abortion. A trip to Chicago seeking more work means hitching a ride with hostile jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).

Fans of this genre of music will adore this movie. "Llewyn Davis" is a love letter to the era, recreating the New York music scene of the '60s and filled with little details and references. I didn't pick up on any of them, unfortunately, even the most obvious ones. Frankly, I respect but don't particularly enjoy folk music, so I didn't get much out of the numerous musical performances scattered throughout the film, and that may have been the fatal problem. Llewyn has a difficult personality and is not a very likeable guy, though he's very sympathetic. Oscar Isaac does a great job bringing across the personal flaws that constantly bring him trouble, which are in many ways are also what is responsible for his talent. The only time he seems truly content is when he's performing, and several of the numbers are used to convey a lot of emotional nuance. Since I wasn't really getting much out of the songs, I could only appreciate most of this on a cerebral level. Oscar Isaac does all his own singing and guitar playing, by the way.

So I was left with a perfectly good character study of a great musician who never made it, and his encounters with the usual Coen brothers parade of colorful characters. I especially liked Carey Mulligan as Jean, whose vehement attacks on Llewyn are simultaneously very funny and heartbreaking. John Goodman turns in another good appearance as the verbose Roland, and F. Murray Abraham shows up in the third act to play a legendary manager. I wish we got to spend more time with all of them. However, because I wasn't in tune with the music, which plays such a big part of "Llewyn Davis," I felt out of tune with the whole film. The story has an elliptical structure with some moody, atmospheric flourishes that cultivate an air of mystery - which the Coens have done very well before, but this time out felt a little gimmicky. I don't know why, but I found a lot of the usual bits of business harder to swallow than usual.

Technically the film is impeccable, of course. The bleak cinematography is gorgeous, and I loved seeing the collection of actors and musicians that were assembled for the film. I barely even noticed Justin Timberlake until his third or fourth scene, because everyone else in the cast was just that strong. I certainly didn't need to like the music to know the quality of it was very high in all respects. In fact, I'm surprised that even with all of the Academy's labyrinthine eligibility rules, "Inside Llewyn Davis" failed to secure any nominations in the music categories at all. I know several people who have gotten downright obsessed with the soundtrack, and I don't begrudge them one bit.

So I appreciate "Llewyn Davis." I appreciate the hell out of it. I can't think of many filmmakers aside from the Coens who could have made it. I just wish that I could have liked the movie more than I do.

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