Grand Prix winner at Cannes. Latest film by directors Ethan and Joel Coen (No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading). These are both things that catch my attention. Hence I was excited to see the Coen brothers’ latest film Inside Llewyn Davis. As I sat there and watched it for the whole hour and forty-five minutes of its run time I kept expecting and hoping that it would pick up. For me it never did. Like a flatline the emotion and story never got more involving or interesting. It was like watching a couple of days in the life of a struggling folk musician in the early 1960s in which very little happens. And when something interesting does happen like he gets the girlfriend of his best friend pregnant or he goes on a car ride from New York City to Chicago with a silent driver and an eccentric man in the back seat it still manages to be fairly dull. Sigh.
New York City in 1961 witnessed the birth of folk music. It was the time where artists like Bob Dylan were beginning to make the rounds in small clubs in the city. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac – Drive, Sucker Punch) is just such an artist. He is passionate about his music, but doesn’t even make enough money to buy a winter jacket much less have an apartment of his own. His life at this moment consists of trying to get small gigs, going to his label only to find out they have no royalty money for him and moving from friends’ couch to friends’ couch. Everyone else seems to have figured out the Llewyn is not going to make a living as a folk singer but him.
All throughout the Coen brothers, who wrote and directed the film, are attempting to build an atmosphere. Very high brow repertoire theatre stuff. They just have forgotten to make it engaging. The main character is not very likeable. Now, that in itself does not mean the failure of a film, but there has to be something engaging about the cad and with Llewyn there isn’t. Not only is he pretty much a jerk, but he is also dull. The kiss of death for a lead character in a film. Thoughtless, stupid, alienating, and uninteresting are just some of the words I can think of to describe Llewyn. The most interesting thing about him is his name and that is not nearly enough to make a film worth watching. The aging hipster character played by John Goodman (from television’s Roseanne) has him totally figured out. He sees him for the phony that he is. I just wish he could have sent me an email before seeing the film, so I could have been prepared.
It is too bad because this was a film I really wanted to like. But sitting through it was pretty painful. You know it is going to be bad when the most charismatic actor is a cat. The Coen brothers have made a career out of making left of center unique films. This totally misses that mark. I felt no connection at all with it. Didn’t care about the lead character or anything that happened to him. It is a character study in which the lead character really does nothing. It is fairly easy or rather simple to make a film about a self-absorbed musician. Aiming too low for the talent level of the Coens, I say. No other revelation in the film. I don’t get what they were trying to say with this film. That the lead character is insufferable? Bad things do happen to bad people? Just that and it is no way near enough.
The one redeeming quality the film possesses is the dark cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel (Dark Shadows, Amélie). It is visually right on the mark. The recreation of the period through clothes and set is above average as well. They both are dominated by greys and that adds to the depressive atmosphere of the story.
- 4K digital transfer, approved by directors Joel and Ethan Coen, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New audio commentary featuring authors Robert Christgau, David Hajdu, and Sean Wilentz
- New conversation between filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and the Coen brothers about the evolution of their approach
- Inside “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013), a forty-three-minute documentary
- Another Day, Another Time (2013), a 101-minute concert documentary celebrating the music ofInside Llewyn Davis, featuring Joan Baez, Marcus Mumford, Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch, Jack White, and others
- New conversation between music producer T Bone Burnett and the Coens about folk music, with illustrations by Drew Christie
- New piece about the early sixties Greenwich Village folk scene, featuring music writer and historian Elijah Wald
- Sunday, a short film by Dan Drasin documenting a 1961 clash between folk musicians and police in Washington Square Park
- PLUS: An essay by film critic Kent Jones