In the Coen Brothers’ film, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ folk music is set to full blast, as the audience is transported to 1961 Greenwich Village, New York. Here we meet Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a down-on-his luck folk musician, haunted by the death of his once great duet partner, Mike. As a duet, they weren’t that profitable. But as a solo act, Llewyn is downright unfortunate. His music is great, but something is lacking. With no royalties coming in, and not a lot of gigs he is willing to perform that won’t compromise his standing as an “artist,” Llewyn is forced to live on friends’ couches and take money from his sister.
Set in the middle of a severe New York winter, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a week in the life of a folk musician, just before the boom of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play Jim and Jean, an obvious two-thirds of a trio reminiscent of Peter, Paul and Mary, while Llewyn’s character is based off of the music of folk hero Dave Van Ronk. While in real life, Van Ronk was a tall man about town, the self-described “Mayor of MacDougal Street,” Llewyn Davis is nothing more than a short, bitter musician with unlikable qualities and more unlikable friends.
I found this film to be just satisfactory on the surface, with very unpleasant characters and a plot-line that went nowhere. No one learns a lesson, everyone just seems so bitter and cold, with no real emotions or passion for what they are trying to accomplish in their lives. The audience doesn’t walk away from the film rooting for anyone really, especially our main character, who is the worst of them all. We feel nothing for him, and at times, we simply don’t care if he makes it as a musician. His music is notable, but much like a modern day Kanye West, I just wanted him to go away.
It is a great departure from Joel and Ethan Coen, who have turned out some of the great films of the last three decades. But for every ‘Fargo,’ the Coens tend to lose their mojo with a ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There.’ When they are at their best with ‘The Big Lebowski,’ they turn around and give us the unwatchable ‘Intolerable Cruelty.’ And unfortunately, their stellar musical odyssey of ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou,’ is now followed by “Inside Llewyn Davis.” It is obvious to the casual observer that they meant for Davis to go through a symbolic odyssey of sorts, even introducing us to a cat literally named Ulysses, and a boisterous John Goodman, not unlike his character from ‘O Brother.’ In fact, it is the cat that gives the most favorable performance in the film, as he seems to be the only one smart enough to always attempt an escape from Llewyn or any of the other characters.
The one saving grace for ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ is the music, produced by T-Bone Burnett. Sung beautifully by all of the actors themselves, the folk music does its job in transporting the audience to a time that once inspired the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. It is no accident that I seem to have the lyrics of some of the songs still stuck in my head two days after seeing the film. The music is its own character, and the soundtrack is one to be remembered.
Alas, a soundtrack does not a film make.