Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen & Coen, 2013)

Still from the movie Inside Llewyn Davis

How could I not like a movie that features folk music and a marmalade cat? Aside from that, it also has the usual irresistible Coen brand of cynical hopefulness (or hopeful cynicism?) or not-at-all-hopeful cynicism. Laugh-because-that’s-all-you-can-do-at-life cynicism. At any rate it’s a brand of honesty I like because it doesn’t flinch at the way life can be sometimes: hard and funny and sweetly sad.

Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is a Greenwich Village folk singer whose partner has recently committed suicide. The film’s events take place in about a week’s span of Llewyn’s life as he tries to “make it” on his own. In the course of that week, he runs through the hospitality and good will of just about every friend, family member, and professional associate he has. And yet, I don’t dislike him. Maybe it’s because his behavior isn’t personal. Maybe because I expect most artists to be assholes. But if Llewyn Davis has an arrogant, off-putting manner, all of that melts away when he sings. The film opens with him on stage crooning a haunting rendition of Dave Van Ronk‘s “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” and I’m instantly hooked.

Not that Llewyn is all horrible. There is a brave little moment he has with Carey Mulligan‘s spitfire Jean when we’re shown some of Davis’s humanity, made all the more poignant because of its prickly packaging. Jean, of course, is interesting, too. Vitriolic and ambitious and more than a little cold. Or is that only to Llewyn? Her partner is the hilariously naive, fresh-faced Jon, played by Justin Timberlake.

I’d watch the film for the music alone, but it’s got enough of its own stuff to carry you forward even without the tunes. It’s a quest movie, you see. Personal journey and whatnot. Though it’s less of an awakening and more of an unraveling (which reminds me of Greenberg, but less melodramatic and explicit). And the journey has no neatly wrapped, saccharine conclusion at the end, “this is how he’s grown,” etc. Maybe just a realization and a question. Or maybe the realization is the answer to that question; who knows? Anyway, aside from an odd interlude with a fat jackass played by John Goodman (which is entertaining but extraneous): good stuff.