When writer-directors consistently produce work as strong as that of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, audiences may be tempted to overanalyze their every film as a Definitive Statement. No wonder, then, that Inside Llewyn Davis has prompted critical ruminations on the significance of folk music in American life. Now, in the wake of that praise, comes a small swell of backlash from former habitués of the milieu recreated in the movie, the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene.
A recent post on the New York Times’ Carpetbagger blog quotes singer-songwriter Christine Lavin as saying she “was hoping this film would make folk music cool again.” Instead, Lavin was “outraged” to find that Llewyn Davis, the Coens’ folk-singer protagonist (loosely based on real musician Dave Van Ronk, who in real life made albums at Vermont’s Philo Records), is actually kind of a “doofus.”
Welcome to the world of the Coens, whose characters (the Dude excepted) can rarely be described as “cool.” Looking for definitive anything in Llewyn seems like an inappropriately heavy-handed approach to two filmmakers who have always reveled in pastiche, local color and shaggy-dog stories studded with memorable dialogue. Llewyn isn’t one of their greatest films. But as a distinctive Coen entertainment, combining gorgeous music and cinematography with a sly mix of absurdist comedy and straight drama, it does not disappoint.
This one is actually a shaggy-cat story. In the dead of winter, 1961, the title character (Oscar Isaac), formerly half of a popular folk duo, struggles to kickstart his solo career. Lacking a roof over his head, he crashes with a well-off academic couple and accidentally locks himself out of their apartment — along with their beloved ginger cat.
Llewyn’s mock-heroic odyssey to return the pet to its owners forms the backbone of a wandering narrative. We meet the married woman he wronged (Carey Mulligan), her blithely clueless husband and singing partner (Justin Timberlake) and various others, in and out of the folk scene, none of them particularly sympathetic to Llewyn’s aspirations.
That’s not surprising, considering his overall arrogance and lack of tact. But when Llewyn opens his mouth to sing “Fare Thee Well” or “The Death of Queen Jane,” he somehow metamorphoses from a petty, hapless jerk to a full-fledged, emotionally generous artist.
The character’s duality may offend our desire to see artists as “cool” people, but it’s hardly unknown in the creative world. In many ways, Llewyn recalls Barton Fink, the 1991 film that established the Coens’ international auteur cred. Like John Turturro’s screenwriter character, Llewyn is a narcissist, cocksure and insecure in equal measures — but he’s not bad at heart. (He does, after all, try to bring that cat home.) And, like Barton Fink, Llewyn gets an unsettling wake-up call from a fellow artist (of sorts) played with great gusto by John Goodman. Here he’s a deteriorating jazz musician, supremely contemptuous of folk, with whom Llewyn catches a ride to Chicago in a last-ditch effort to resuscitate his career.
Musically and visually, Inside Llewyn Davis offers plenty of frictionless pleasures to compensate for the prickly scrappiness of its hero. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel gives painterly luminosity to bleak settings such as a Midwest highway rest stop, blunting their hard edges, and the soundtrack (produced by T-Bone Burnett) is highly listenable.
But it’s Llewyn’s prickliness — his failure to, as he’s told, “connect” with audiences — that makes him interesting. He’s not an effortlessly likable mainstream artist like Timberlake’s character, nor is he a genius like Bob Dylan (glimpsed in one scene) who can rewrite all the rules. In short, Llewyn is the kind of artist we see almost never in biopics and all too often in real life: a talented also-ran. The Coens gravitate toward such underdogs (and, yes, undercats). Regardless of their fidelity — or lack thereof — to Van Ronk’s story, they’ve crafted a vital character and given him his due.