Inside Llewyn Davis is an odd film. I could easily sit here and lay out my take on the Coen’s use of a struggling has-been folk singer as an alter ego for their own collective struggling artist, “us against the machine and mediocrity” personae.
But that might be reading too much in to this picture.
It may just be a whimsical stab of an homage to the sappy folk music that sprang up in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Call it a companion piece to Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind.
No matter how much we think we kind of know Joel and Ethan Coen after all these years, do we really know what makes them tick? More than any other filmmakers, the Coens always give the impression that it’s all an inside joke. And they don’t give a darn if you get it.
Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis. He used to be exactly one half of a mildly successful folk singing duo until his partner killed himself and left him adrift in the streets of lower Manhattan tethered to a cat named Ulysses, with a low rent bottom feeding agent named Mel, a cranky suburbanite sister who looks down on his existence, and an assortment of couches to sleep on depending on which bridge was not most recently burned to the ground.
But he can sing. And his song writing ain’t bad either.
This is the crux of the film. Llewyn Davis has talent – lots of it – but he can’t play the game. As the Coens like to say “he doesn’t get along in the sandbox.”
Isaac is good here. He does the singing and the guitar playing and it is accomplished work for sure. However, and I’m not saying this isn’t by design, his character literally goes nowhere. He evolves not one ounce.
John Goodman is excellent as a nomadic drug addicted jazz man. He is at his best when danger lurks (see Barton Fink). Carey Mulligan, whom I have very little tolerance for, is good as well as a fellow folk artist who made the mistake of not just sharing her couch with Llewyn, but letting the loser in to her bed.
But the real casting coup came in the cameo provided by F. Murray Abraham.
Abraham plays Chicago club owner Bud Grossman. Through a few convoluted twists of fate, Llewyn sits across from him on stage and is asked to perform.
“Why should I listen to your record, when you’re here?” the faustian symbol of commerce and success asks. “Play me something. Play me something from “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
The song Llewyn plays is beautiful. His talent undeniable. Watching Abraham sit calmly and listen reminded me of his Oscar-winning work so many years ago in Amadeus – Salieri painfully absorbing the brilliance of the madman Mozart, the reflection of his own mediocrity in each note.
Okay, I may have only “liked” it, but I will see it again…and I may just download the soundtrack.