Do you remember when the band REM released the album "Out of Time?"
It was 1991. REM was already a popular band, but their popularity was largely defined by their indie cred and pointed lyrics and diehard support from college radio. After near non-stop touring from their beginning in 1980 until their breakthrough release in 1991, REM became one of the earliest, most visible and most popular acts to fall into the musical genre of alternative rock and after their 1992 release "Automatic for the People" continued their massive success they were signed to an unheard of recording contract of anywhere from $80 million to $100 million depending upon who you believe.
Then, almost eerily, REM returned to their alternative rock roots and their subsequent releases paled in comparison, at least in terms of sales, to their, excuse the pun, monster hits of the early 1990's. REM didn't exactly change who they were as a band, but I'm guessing when Warner Brothers signed them to that big ole' contract they were planning on years and years of mega-hits to follow.
Inside Llewyn Davis isn't the film a filmmaker makes if the only real concern is churning out another market friendly and surefire box-office hit. In fact, it feels like the kind of film that the Coen Brothers would have made early in their careers when they were indie darlings embraced by cineastes and talked about for hours on end after a viewing. From their debut with Blood Simple in 1984, Joel and Ethan Coen have always seemed to have a knack for maintaining their indie cred while occasionally churning out box-office hits and critical darlings such as Barton Fink, Fargo, No Country for Old Men and others. The Coen Brothers fame seemed to reach another level after 2007's No Country for Old Men, but rather than assemble a paint-by-numbers copy of that film the Coen Brothers have instead turned almost serenely introspective with films like A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis alongside one of their weaker entries, Burn After Reading, and their remake of True Grit, the latter which snagged 10 Oscar nominations but took none home.
Inside Llewyn Davis is among the very best films of Joel and Ethan Coen, though you may very well not realize it until long after you've seen the film and you can't stop yourself from thinking about it. It's not a masterpiece of a film, though I can't help but get the distinct feeling that the lack of mastery is an intentional decision made in portraying the life of folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who may or may not ever score such a masterpiece in his life. The man Llewyn Davis often struck me as folk music's Kanye West, a man who is confident and talented but whose narcissism often steals his spotlight. The truth is that Davis has never met a friend from whom he won't take, because taking allows him to live the life that he knows he's meant to live even he never manages to transcend mere survival.
Gorgeously created and shot in pristine yet seemingly faded colors by Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis is a rather melancholy comedy best viewed in the company of an enthusiastic audience that will most assuredly tap into the unique Coen vibe. Set in the New York City folk scene of 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis likely will be compared to the fairly recent A Serious Man but deserves more of a comparison to O Brother, Where Art Thou? with which it shares both musical and philosophical roots. Davis, brought to life serenely and soulfully by Isaac, spends his days mostly making appearances at the West Village's Gaslight Cafe, an intimate joint with modest crowds who seem to appreciate anyone with a decidedly unique point of view and a willingness to share it. It's obvious early in the film Davis is not living up to his potential, a potential revealed by an astoundingly wonderful cover of Dave Van Ronk's "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" that is likely to leave theatrical audiences as awestruck as it leaves those on the big screen.
While Davis's talent is obvious, his gift for handling anything resembling real life is far less evident. He mostly subsists by crashing on the couches of friends and enjoying the attention he receives from music academics who recognize his unique gifts and reward him with places to stay, food, etc. Davis is wholly unwilling to sell out and unleashes his wrath upon many of those with whom he shares the stage at the Gaslight Cafe, most notably a husband-and-wife team known as Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), whose cutesie but positive songs manage to open doors in ways that Davis is likely to never experience. While much of the film is serenely contemplative, Inside Llewyn Davis benefits greatly from a scene in which Davis is invited to join Jim in a studio session on a novelty record called "Hey Mr. Kennedy," the kind of record that Davis loathes and America loves.
The film takes a more soulful turn when Davis hits the road determined to come face-to-face with one of folk music's leading producers (F. Murray Abraham), a journey that leads him into sharing a ride with a moody jazz musician (John Goodman) and his loyal companion (Garrett Hedlund).
There isn't a whole lot, in all honesty, that happens in Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that is much more about the journey than it is about the destination. Taking place over the course of a week in the life of Davis, Inside Llewyn Davis honestly and without histrionics chronicles the life of an immensely gifted man whose self-sabotaging ways and not so subtle personality flaws may always keep him from achieving the success of far less talented people. Isaac is wise to not play Davis for the drama, but instead he plays Davis as a man who seems to be a lot like that hamster spinning aimlessly on the hamster wheel without a clue how to make it all stop or at least go a different direction.
In addition to Isaac's terrific performance, both Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan are perfectly cast as Jim and Jean. Timberlake is one of pop music's more inherently likable performers, and that combination of talent and likability is crucial in selling exactly what makes Jim different from Llewyn. As Jean, Carey Mulligan is delightfully brash and irritable and yet inviting. Both John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund are also terrific here and, as usual, the Coens have assembled an outstanding ensemble cast.
D.P. Bruno Delbonnel lenses the film to perfection, while Jess Gonchor's production design captures both the cyclical nature of Llewyn's life and the undeniable attraction of the 1960's folk scene. T-Bone Burnett serves as the film's executive music producer and, as seems to always be true with a Coen Brothers film, the music is nothing short of perfection.
Inside Llewyn Davis isn't likely to break box-office records, though its presence among the nominees for the upcoming awards season is far more assured. Most likely, the film will appeal to true Coen purists along with those who prefer an honest and natural tale about the mundane and more insane ins and outs of life for a musician who is always on the verge of that long desired breakthrough.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic