INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS has some of the most beautiful melancholia I've seen in some time. It's the sort of film best viewed by oneself, preferably on an overcast, chilly afternoon or evening. Following what is debatably an anticlimax, you sit and continue to experience the sort of loneliness its title character is left with. Maybe also some shred of new wisdom to boot. The sense of solitude the Coen Brothers' new film inspires made me feel the way a slow, minor key, poignant song might. So sad but so satisfying in a work of art that touches your emotions and your intellect (maybe not your soul). So appropriate as this film follows a less than successful folk singer around Greenwich Village and beyond in 1961, before Dylan took the stool and changed the music world.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) wanders New York City forever in search of a couch on which to crash. He's broke, seeing not a nickel of residual from an album he and his former partner (who committed suicide) cut, as well as his solo LP, "Inside Llewyn Davis". His agent is all but useless (though one of those great Coens faces, played by Jerry Grayson). There's a sister in Queens and friends/lovers in the Village and Upper West Side, all of whom are disgusted with his blatant narcissism and lack of responsibility.
A young lady Llewyn got pregnant named Jean (Carey Mulligan), and she's not the first, is also the girlfriend of his buddy/sometime collaborator Jim (Justin Timberlake). They all play at the Gaslight Cafe for peanuts, but it's still exposure. A university professor and his wife, the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) are Llewyn's last resort/go to crash pad when everyone else understandly tells him to fuck off. One morning, their cat escapes as Llewyn is leaving and he henceforth has a companion. Will the Coens attempt to tell a story ala 1974's HARRY and TONTO, the lovely film that featured Art Carney as a retiree who travels cross country with his beloved feline?
Sort of. Llewyn eventually hitchhikes to Chicago to meet with a well known producer named Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) in the hopes of an audition and/or gig. There's a cat with Llewyn but it's not the same one he inherited, though it looks just like it. The cat(s) in this film are fun to watch, and will allow you later to wonder of their significance as they watch subway stops and stare sadly at their troubled human. On the journey, Llewyn meets a junkie jazz musician (John Goodman) and his laconic valet (Grant Hedlund) in a series of vignettes that are pure Coens. These scenes will either provide sly grins or painful sighs. You know who you are either way.
The film begins and ends with the same scene: Llewyn is attacked by a stranger in the alley behind the Gaslight for reasons that are essentially the film's themes. I will refrain from further elaboration. Though whether the events around it are exactly the same as presented in the film's opening minutes will prompt debate among viewers. Such ambiguity is also vintage Coens.
For all its solemnity, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS has many hilarious moments, some of the point and laugh superiority genre, others quieter, observational. Sometimes both, as in the scene with Llewyn at dinner with the Gorfeins and their rather square friends (more great faces/character actors). The scene is a perfect ballet of comedy, then shifts to explosive, even heart thumping drama, quite deftly.
I was reminded of Jim Jarmusch's BROKEN FLOWERS by this scene and several others. So much droll, unexpected, blink and you'll miss it humor to be discovered among a bleak and seemingly hopeless landscape. A flawed lead character we nonetheless root for but also want to slap or punch, hard at times. I'm sure there is a wealth of meaning in this movie I've yet to discover. Suffering for your art, for starters. Some viewers may feel they are suffering for Ethan and Joel's.
Thus, many people will dislike INSIDE LLEWEYN DAVIS. My wife's boss, who lived in the Village during the time period depicted, was dismayed at how inaccurate she felt the movie was. But this is the Coens' world, not the real one. The atmosphere is somber and dark. Off-putting to some. It is filled with the sort of mordancy and cynicism, to say nothing of great music (again produced by T. Bone Burnett), fans have come to appreciate. Music is what allows Llewyn and some of the other characters to breathe.
"I am the surgeon and music is my knife. It cuts away my sorrow and purifies my life." Paul Simon once sang in a tune called "God Bless the Absentee". It fits Llewyn, too. He's much better at communicating through it than anything else.
I did not see INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS by myself, but the highly individualistic and idiosyncratic style of it made me ignore the theater full of yentas with little trouble.