Oscar Isaac Carey Mulligan Justin Timberlake Adam Driver John Goodman
Inside Llewyn Davis reminds me a bit of Burn after Reading, also by the Coen brothers, in which there is little about the main characters to sympathize with. In the earlier film, there is more humor, which softens the impact, but there is little humor in the former. Rather than humor, Davis’ music is the softening agent to his abrasive personality. Davis’ lack of social graces or even a smidgen of empathy for others is self-destructive, and thwarts his drive to become an employed, popular artist. The Coens created this character to tell a story about “real songs by made-up people”, according to Oscar Isaac, who plays the title role, and T-Bone Burnet, the music producer and composer, in a Q&A session after the screening of the film at the Austin Film Festival.
Llewyn Davis is a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village in New York in the early sixties. He has become homeless, and must borrow sofas for the night among his few friends—who are remarkable in their forgiveness of his obnoxious behavior in their homes. One is a former lover (Carey Mulligan) who lives with her husband (Justin Timberlake) and is furious with him for good reason (a very different role for Mulligan, which she aces). Another is a music professor and his wife with a lovely cat, which, in Coen playfulness, holds its own as a star at times. Davis has no apprehension in the least about asking friends he has just met at these friends’ homes to sleep on their couch from time to time.
A relief from these trying moments comes when Davis picks up his guitar. The music is the complete opposite of his personality—soulful, creative, vibrant—which is a curious juxtaposition. Nor surprisingly, the imminently prolific, award-winning T-Bone Barnet is responsible for the success of the music, many of which are classics based on Dave van Ronk’s renditions, such as “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, and “Dink’s Song – Fare Thee Well”, and one of which he composed (“Please Mr. Kennedy”). Apparently, the whole film is loosely—very loosely—based on Van Ronk’s memoir.
Another significant part of the success of the music is Oscar Isaac’s performances. Because the Coen brothers wanted the film to be similar to a documentary, Isaac spent long hours before filming, perfecting his sound to be as close to Van Ronk’s as possible. He was required to perform each song during a single take to give it the documentary quality. In addition, his portrayal of the character during the entire film is remarkably good.
The music is really what saves this film from complete despair. There are moments intended to be funny, such as the John Goodman role, or a countrywoman singer with a dulcimer, or Davis’ interactions with the cat, but I found them more pathetic than humorous. Others may find them genuinely funny, however.
I am a huge Coen brothers fan, and although Inside Llewyn Davis is not quite to my taste, the music and acting are most impressive.
A story about real songs by made-up people.