director Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
viewed: 12/21/2013 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA
The Coen brothers’ latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is set in early 1960’s Manhattan, amid the burgeoning folk music scene. But it’s less a study of the period and music than it is a study of the dark nights of the soul of the self-loathing, well-loathed, loathsome main character, Llewyn (not Llewellyn, as I often misread it), played by Oscar Isaac.
Frankly, I don’t entirely know what to make of it. Tonally, it most reminded me of their 2009 movie, A Serious Man, which, four years later, I don’t know if I have come to know much of what I make of it either. Both films are set in the 1960’s, and while A Serious Man is explicitly about a Jewish man in a crisis of life, it’s not as clear that Llewyn Davis is meant to be Jewish or read as Jewish or meant to perhaps just be mistaken as Jewish. But both protagonists are in their own universal hell. Davis’s hell seems entirely brought upon by his own unpleasant being.
The folk music setting has often been compared to the “old timey music” of their 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which also featured a soundtrack produced by T. Bone Burnett. The O Brother soundtrack went on to make a ton of money, quite the surprise in the music industry, but was a certain watershed for all involved. I’m tempted to contrast those two films, but it’s been years since I’ve seen O Brother, Where Art Thou? and I don’t know that the point is all that germane.
What I can say about the film is that the music is good (not as much my cup of tea really, but I still enjoyed it). The film has some good performances, namely that of John Goodman as some crippled jazz musician with whom Davis catches a ride to Chicago. Justin Timberlake shows up as a successful folk musician and continues to prove out a point that I was very hard pressed to realize some years back, but quite simply: that man is talented! Seriously talented!
More than anything, though, the film is a slog. It’s a comedy to an extent, with a few laughs, but it’s mostly a real downer of a trip. It’s not much fun. And then there is this weird semi-twist at the end that seems to suggest either that most of the film has been a flashback or a premonition. I really don’t know what to make of that.
When I first saw The Big Lebowski (1998), I thought it was a muddle and a mess and didn’t really like it. Of course, I saw it on television shortly after and quickly came to see it as the great cult film that it’s become. I say this because it’s a precedent for watching a Coen brothers’ film in the theater and not liking it, though eventually coming around. Like my comment about O Brother, Where Art Thou? I really don’t think that is an apt comparison. At a certain point, all the Coen brothers films were great. We’ve past that point now. We’re at a point when considering their work, it’s a mixture of films, approaches, styles.
That said, I never think that they would craft an original film without some depth of intent. Right now, I leave the analysis for time to tell.
Overall, though, I certainly didn’t love it.