Synopsis: A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Justin Timberlake
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Running Length: 105 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I went into Inside Llewyn Davis with a bit of trepidation at the thought of two hours of melancholy set to a folk music score. You see, I don’t seem to have it in my bones to have quite the love affair with the Coen Brothers as most dedicated cinephiles do. For every homerun they hit (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Blood Simple) they produce their fair share of fouls (Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty) as well.
It tends to go that for every great Coen film, two mediocre ones follow and with their last picture being 2010’s commendable remake of True Grit I was expecting to be disappointed in their latest creation. While Inside Llewyn Davis may have won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, it isn’t pitch perfect but I found it to resonate in the right spots.
Llewyn Davis is a young-ish folk singer in New York in the early 60’s trying to strike out on his own after his former singing partner tosses himself off a bridge. Playing in smoky clubs with names like The Gaslight Café and the Gate of Horn, he’s clearly a talented singer but his general ‘why not me’ attitude has soured him and alienated him from friends and family. Over the course of the week we get to know Llewyn we see him make all sorts of personal and professional mistakes in a journey that proves to be less about gaining a greater self awareness of past wrongs and more about an inner awakening of the direction his life is headed.
The screenplay by co-directors Joel and Ethan Coen is pretty maudlin and curiously lacking the usual crackle they instill in their dialogue. Even with that spitfire patter absent, the film is dryly funny with many scenes soaked through with an acidly salty banter between Llewyn and the like.
As our titular anti-hero, Oscar Isaac (Won’t Back Down, The Bourne Legacy) possesses a helluva voice that fits perfectly into the folksy tunes compiled by dynamo music producer T-Bone Burnett. Each scene seems to have a song to go with it and the film is most surely at its assured best when Isaac, Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby), Justin Timberlake (Runner Runner), and Stark Sands (Broadway’s Kinky Boots) are plaintively singing in their quiet way. I’m not a huge folk music aficionado but these music sequences (all set realistically and not staged like a musical) were the moments I was truly transported within the film. The songs are so good, in fact, that the movie could have excised all the dialogue and just kept the songs to tell the story and the effect would be the same.
Where the film struggles are the moments between the songs when the situations get a bit routine. Though a wayward road trip with John Goodman (Flight, Argo, ParaNorman, Stella) and Garrett Hedlund has moments that exemplify the quirkiness that put the Coen Brothers on the map, too often we’re treated to the same incidents were Llewyn screws up and is reprimanded…usually by a woman so it comes across as mundane brow beating.
Though the film is fairly somber, I left with a song in my step feeling more refreshed than I have at other Coen films. Like all of their films it’s a quiet affair best taken in in some small dinky theater with sticky floors and non-stadium seating…exactly the opposite of the refurbished classic theater I saw it in. Even so, this earns a recommendation for Isaac’s strong leading performance and a soundtrack you’ll want to get your ears on pronto.