A film about an unappreciated artist made by some of the most praised filmmakers in the world.
To many, the Coen brothers are gods of cinema, peerless in American cinema. They can do no wrong. (Well, they can do The Ladykillers.)
I’m not one of those people. Too many of their films left me cold — or lukewarm, at least. I don’t adore The Big Lebowski like so many do (but I do need to see it again). I liked their version of True Grit. I did not much like Burn After Reading. No Country For Old Men made my Top 10 list for 2007 (in slot #9), but I somewhat begrudge it for robbing Paul Thomas Anderson and There Will Be Blood of more deserved Oscars. And in 2009, a year which found a film called A Single Man as my #1 film, I absolutely loathed the Coens’ A Serious Man — so much that I put it at the very bottom at #64 (after the fourth Fast And Furious). The only Coen film I actually consider truly great is Fargo.
I should probably catch up on some of their earlier works (though also was not a big fan of Raising Arizona). But I think it’s safe to say that the Brothers and I just don’t totally gel. I find their films populated with great performances from some of the best actors around, and many of them contain great scenes. But the stories themselves don’t always connect with me. Their characters can be exhausting; they’re not generally people I want to spend much more screen time with. If there’s ever a criticism lobbed at them, it’s usually about their cynicism. They sometimes seem to hate their characters, and often punish them for it. (That was essentially the entire story of A Serious Man.)
So I walked into Inside Llewyn Davis with mild trepidation, knowing that many critics have already heralded it as one of the year’s best, knowing that it wowed at Cannes, and fearing that it’d be yet another Coen brothers film I can’t help but feel is overpraised. (It’s the same feeling I had walking into Nebraska, though in that case, my fears were quelled.)
Inside Llewyn Davis begins with a stage and a spotlight, but unlike most dramas about musicians, it’s the story of a man who isn’t famous and never will be. That, in and of itself, is a novelty — we’ve seen plenty of biopics that begin with someone, like Johnny Cash or Ray Charles, living meagerly, facing rejection from men in suits who fail to see what we so clearly can — this guy’s the real deal! But in such cases, it’s just a bump on the road to acclaim and stardom (and usually some kind of addiction). That’s why we’re watching a biopic about them. (Even movies about fictional musicians nearly always depict them as wildly popular — see Country Strong, Crazy Heart, That Thing You Do!, and so on.) That’s not the case with Llewyn Davis, a folk music singer you’ve never heard of for a reason. Because no one has, really. Beyond his small circle of family and friends, he never left his mark.
Llewyn Davis is definitely talented. It’s not that he can’t get work — it’s just that he can’t get the kind of work he wants, and he doesn’t want to sell out. The film takes place in New York City’s budding folk music scene circa 1961, but it couldn’t be any more modern or resonant thematically. A great many of today’s starving artists will identify with Llewyn Davis — homeless, broke, lacking a proper winter coat — with nothing but his artistic integrity to keep him warm. Llewyn’s pride is his downfall — he can be prickly, snapping at the few people kind enough to show him charity. There are compromises he could make to earn money, but that’s not what he wants to do. He’s like an indie musician from 2013 who traveled back in time to 1961 — arguably more a contemporary character than a period-appropriate one.
You could read Inside Llewyn Davis a few different ways. Is he a great artist who just never got his due? Did the world miss out on a wonderful (fictional) talent? Or are the Coens critiquing his holier-than-thou artist’s mentality, his refusal to just grow up and get a real job, man? This is a very 1960s dilemma, but also a very 2013 one — there’s every reason to believe that Llewyn Davis is the vessel through which the Coens are exploring post-recession America, particularly as it impacts twenty- and thirtysomethings. (Though Llewyn Davis seems a little too snarky to be 1961’s version of an Occupy Wall Street protester — he’d more likely sit that out.) None of this is didactic, but it’s hard not to view the film through a very modern prism.
You could see Llewyn Davis as a victim — of a capitalist country that favors making money over making art — and in a way, he is. (Aren’t we all?) But I doubt that’s what the Coens were aiming for — their characters tend to be blind agents of their own fates. The filmmakers do have some affection for Llewyn Davis — it’s hard not to, though he is definitely sometimes quite an asshole. He’s not square, and doesn’t play safe, and isn’t always nice — the same is true of the Coens, so I must imagine they love the character. Llewyn Davis is just one of those guys who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere — and doesn’t expend a whole lot of effort trying to. It’s almost surprising that he sings so earnestly and beautifully, and in such a straightforward genre as folk — taking place twenty years later, Llewyn Davis probably would have been totally punk rock. (But I guess folk was kind of the punk rock of the early 60s.)
There’s a squarer folk singer in the movie, Jim Berkey, played by Justin Timberlake, who is everything Llewyn Davis is not. He asks Llewyn to back him up on a self-penned ditty called “Please Mr. Kennedy” that is truly silly, with Girls’ Adam Driver providing ridiculous vocals in the background. It seems eager, talented young artists were faced with the same hit-hungry bullshit from the music business in 1961 as they are today. There’s a terrific scene late in the film featuring F. Murray Abraham as a Chicago club owner and record exec that cuts right to the bone of what it’s like to be an unsung artist unable to pay the bills with talent, unwilling to let go of the dream. Llewyn’s debut record as a solo singer is also called Inside Llewyn Davis; it’s an apt title for a movie about a man who sings from the heart, because when you’re an artist, that’s what it feels like they’re rejecting: your insides. Llewyn bares his soul, but nobody’s paying for it.
Like many Coen brothers films, Inside Llewyn Davis is not that straightforward a story, but a rather episodic one. It takes some bizarre detours along the way, most noticeably a lengthy road trip sequence to Chicago featuring a mostly silent Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman as a character who grows tiresome quickly. In my eyes, much of this strange sequence was a little too offbeat — distracting from an otherwise small-scale and intimate story. The film is book-ended with a scene we see twice, one I’m not sure we even needed to see once — and showing it twice gives it a significance I’m still puzzling over. (It follows a moment of drunken heckling that makes Llewyn’s frustrations more explicit than they needed to be.) There’s also an odd father-son encounter that feels rather extraneous — but I’m pretty sure it’s the only scene in the history of cinema that ends quite like that.
Questionable tangents aside, there a few truly funny moments in the film, and several poignant ones, too. A couple dinner party scenes fire on all cylinders, with Llewyn trying to defend his artistic integrity to the point of being a total jerk. (One of them features another Girls star, Alex Karpovsky — do these boys get a call any time someone writes a movie about being destitute in New York or what?) And then there’s the cat. Of course, the music is very good — especially when sung by Oscar Isaac, who delivers a strong career-altering performance that should guarantee him as a leading man in plenty of upcoming films. (He’s great.) There’s less singing than you might expect from Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, who plays Jim’s feisty, hypocritical, unfaithful girlfriend, who hates Llewyn Davis for reasons we never get a full handle on. (But her surly comedic presence is certainly welcome.)
Is Inside Llewyn Davis a triumph, as its Grand Prix Award at Cannes and critical fawning suggest? I don’t know. As with most of their films, the Coen brothers have left me with mixed feelings — though there’s more in Inside Llewyn Davis that I love than in most of their films. I’ll want to watch it again at least once. It’s a film you might expect from a younger, newer filmmaker (though it could never have been made quite like this). Inside Llewyn Davis is a tragedy many of us can relate to — the tragedy of talent without luck. Llewyn doesn’t have a lot of appealing options available to him, and neither do many of us. It’s almost depressing, really, what little change can occur over fifty years.
For proof of this, see Frances Ha. Frances Ha was also directed by someone who’s seen his fair share of success — Noah Baumbach, probably still best known for his breakout film The Squid And The Whale. (His subsequent films have received very mixed reviews.) It’s a little more fitting that Noah Baumbach has made a film about a young, struggling artist in New York City, because he’s not an Oscar winner as the Coens are. (He was a nominee, though.) He hasn’t achieved film god status like they have. Baumbach co-wrote the movie with its star, Greta Gerwig, who seems very in sync with her title character. (Gerwig’s own parents play Frances’.)
Frances Ha is like an even artsier, black-and-white movie version of HBO’s Girls. (And yes, Adam Driver is in this one, too. Dude has seriously cornered this market.) It’s another unconventional young woman refusing to sacrifice her individuality or her dream, despite a serious lack of funds and only a questionable level of talent. (See also: Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, which saw Lena casting her own family as well.) Like Llewyn Davis, Frances bounces around from apartment to apartment and is told by someone who should know that she has some talent in her chosen field, but not quite enough to make a living at it. (In her case, it’s dancing.) Like Llewyn Davis, Frances spends most of the movie unwilling to accept that, going after her dream anyway. (Though that’s not necessarily this movie’s focus.)
It’s a little surprising how similar Frances Ha and Inside Llewyn Davis are in that respect. Despite its black-and-white cinematography, though, Frances Ha is a much warmer movie with only a slightly bittersweet melancholia at its center, lacking the Coens’ trademark cynicism, and it ends optimistically enough. It’s also very episodic, with charming (rather than distracting) tangents in Sacramento, Paris, and Poughkeepsie. There’s a bit of a story, but only a bit — Frances’ BFF decides to move in with her BF, pulling away from a friendship that was basically Frances’ whole life. Frances tries to cling to that dying friendship in a way that is sad and a little pathetic — it’s another film that should easily resonate with millennial twentysomethings facing similar crises, as will Frances’ bummer of a financial situation.
Frances Halladay is probably not as talented a dancer as Llewyn Davis is a folk singer, and her artistic failure is not so tragic as Llewyn’s. (In her case, it’s probably best that she give up the ghost and try compromising.) The film has a surprising amount of charm, mostly thanks to Gerwig’s unique performance — Frances is quirky and exuberant in a way that might annoy the people around her, but won’t likely annoy the audience. Like Nebraska, it’s a contemporary film in black-and-white; here, that choice feels more like celebration than color-drained depression. For all its timeliness, it feels a little retro, too — like old school Woody Allen. It’s low-stakes, a lark — but something about it stays with us.
Frances Halladay is a woman who needs to dance — but the world doesn’t need her to dance, and it certainly won’t pay her to. Llewyn Davis is a man who probably only expresses pure, genuine emotion when he’s singing — but only a few old people at a dinner party want to hear it. As depicted in Inside Llewyn Davis and Frances Ha, there are more artists in the world than there is a demand for art — or at least more people who think they’re artists. Of course, they all want to make a living doing what they love. Not many do. Frances and Llewyn are two who fell through the cracks, for better or worse.
Thankfully, these stories about them were made by artists who did manage to break through, so it seems Frances and Llewyn found their audience after all.