When the Coen brothers are on their game (Fargo/The Big Lebowski…forget it, not naming every movie), they’re masters of their obscure craft, but Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t display the typical amount of quirks, perceptive comedy, and off-color characters that the brothers typically utilize. Llewyn Davis is a character that once again wanders down a somber, relentless path, but without that typically goofy aura, Inside Llewyn Davis slows to an uncharacteristically sluggish pace – despite a crack music department headlined by T-Bone Burnett. The Coen’s script tells a story you might hear a raspy folk singer croon while he solemnly strums his dusty acoustic guitar, but if this “Grandpa music” isn’t exactly your style, you might have some trouble waiting to find out what’s exactly inside Llewyn Davis.
Oscar Isaac plays the titular folk singer, trying to find fame and fortune in the Greenwich Village music scene circa 1961. Taking place in the dead of winter, we see a struggling artist who doesn’t even own a winter coat attempt to strike it big his own way, ignoring advice and squandering favors from others. It becomes evident that Llewyn may be his own worst enemy, refusing to change his ways, but as the days begin to wear on him as he travels from one generous couch to the next, he begins to question his career as a musician. If he can stay out of his own way and learn a thing or two from some musical friends (played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, amongst others), he just might have a musical career – but that turns out to be a pretty big “if.”
Isaac is such a brilliant performer as Llewyn Davis, and he does a phenomenal job of displaying a struggling sad-sack who can’t seem to keep out of trouble. Llewyn’s own dreams of grandeur still are relevant in today’s society of dreamers, as his stubbornness accounts for his own shortcomings. He is a tragic character, but not one we feel particularly sorry for because of his repeated actions, and Oscar Isaac does a wonderful job just gliding through each scenario with such a disconnected aura about him – which is exactly how Llewyn should have been portrayed. He focused strongly on his musical talents, which Oscar also possesses plenty of, and Llewyn Davis was a proper showman while playing. Isaac nails the folk rock genre and all its chord-driven simplicity, sings his heart out, and brings life to his stage presence, bringing a soulful humbleness to Inside Llewyn Davis.
In typical full-circle fashion, the Coens start our story off at the end, wrap around a week before, and we end up right back where we started, giving context to the previously abstract event. We’ve seen this method implemented time and time again, but in keeping Llewyn’s story grounded, the revelatory moments are nothing but blank stares and discouraging words – spirited by true independent filmmaking. This is where Inside Llewyn Davis struggles though, as enlightening moments didn’t pack the emotional whallop we’re used to. Llewyn’s story is a mildly frustrating one in fact, albeit full of heartwarming moments, but the Coen brothers get too caught up in speaking volumes with the least amount of effort possible.
Llewyn’s story is also an intriguing one, though, as are all of the Coen’s scripts, and that’s thanks to supporting characters Llewyn interacts with, who just baffle the young musician. Justin Timberlake embodies the corny musician who Llewyn never wants to be, and does so well, but I wasn’t as keen on Carey Mulligan’s role as Timberlake’s wife. Her only real purpose was to curse Llewyn out over and over again, thanks to their complicated relationship, and she did so with a very exaggerated, overly comical tone. This would have been perfect in a typical Coen story, but Mulligan felt awkward and out of place whenever she launched into a dirty word tirade. John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund, on the other hand, are more along the lines of the eccentric characters we’re used to, and provide that counter-spark to Llewyn’s blankness. Unfortunately, their stint is much shorter than the other supporting characters who interact with Llewyn.
The Coen brothers have made serious films before, so I know they can create gripping, stern drama, but Inside Llewyn Davis lacked that certain Coen spark. It’s easy to sit back and listen to the cool vibes that Oscar Isaac and company lay down, and there is something humbly inviting about Llewyn’s journey, but in trying to oversimplify the film, a bit of the emotion and depth is lost. Still, this is the Coen brothers, and they know how to tell a fabled tale, so don’t expect a stinker – but don’t expect their next masterpiece, either.
Inside Llewyn Davis may be missing that certain Coen spark I've come to love, but it's still an intriguing watch from start to finish. It's a good movie - just not Coen brothers good.