Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen – USA/France) 105 minutes
‘I don’t hear any money here,’ says a music impresario to Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) upon being played the latter’s work. There is, indeed, very little money in the life of struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis, adrift in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961; impecunious, he struggles between gigs, crashing on the couches of anyone whose hospitality he can abuse. He is the embodiment of that old muso joke: ‘What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless’. For want of a girlfriend, Llewyn sleeps with Jean (Carey Mulligan – as ever, a three-chord performance), the wife of his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and is then forced to resort to some ‘creative’ birth control when she falls pregnant.
The Coen Brothers’ portrayal of the nascent, ‘pre-Judas’ folk scene, is admirably rich, with Bruno Delbonnel’s photography capturing New York’s wintry scuzziness with aplomb. Llewyn, though a thoroughly dislikable character – selfish, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-pretty-much-everything – is still someone you find yourself rooting for, probably because we have all had a dear friend as imperiously indifferent to the concerns of others as he. He is wayward and feckless, like another Coen character, The Dude, only with added bitterness fermenting away; Isaac’s performance is perfectly calibrated, like an impudent young Martin Scorsese, and the fact he plays and sings on screen makes it all the more impressive. And Llewyn is certainly no worse than most of the others he encounters – the shrill Jean, the careerist Jim, a morosely taciturn beat poet (Garret Hedlund in a rather pointless cross-pollination of Walter Salles’ On the Road adaptation), an obnoxious jazzman (John Goodman), his manager Mel, who never pays him. This raises the first major problem with the film though – its tone is irredeemably sour, rather than melancholic, as many have contended. If it’s meant to be a love-letter to the Greenwich Village scene, well it’s an odd one, as the Coens are clearly not too sympathetic towards anyone in it.
The film also signposts things a bit too crudely, such as the brief appearance of a soldier-on-leave Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) – supposedly based on Tom Paxton – whose upright discipline is going to get him further in the music business than Llewyn. We hear, in passing, a young Bob Dylan soundalike, whose fame, and later capitulation to rock, would sweep folk music further to the margins than it was to begin with. It’s a fair point to make but it’s a bit obvious, as are the successive jokes involving a friend’s cat whom Llewyn gets inadvertently lumbered with. Then again, recourse to obvious gags has been a feature of the Coens throughout their career.
Inside Llewyn Davis is dotted with references to real-life characters – Jean and Jim carry a clear echo of the embryonic Peter, Paul and Mary; there is a wretched acapello version of ‘The Auld Triangle’ by an Irish quartet clearly meant to be The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, and Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) the impresario Llewyn so desperately courts, is modelled on Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. Llewyn himself is reportedly based on folk legend Dave Van Ronk, though the similarities are only fleeting – Van Ronk, while he never enjoyed Dylan’s success, can’t be said to have failed in a way Llewyn is destined to and his folk music was far more robust and spirited than Llewyn Davis’ watery brew (it is not a shock to learn that Mr Carey Mulligan, Marcus Mumford, had a hand in the film’s music). Llewyn’s failure, moreover, seems predetermined – the suicide of his former singing partner looms throughout the film but it seems more like a device of convenience than genuine bereavement. Llewyn’s impecunious struggles also appear picturesque and incidental, compared to the vaguely similar Frances Ha, which, for all its limitations, was a far more convincing account of thwarted ambition. Inside Llewyn Davis is a watchable, at times beautiful, film but ultimately suffers from the factitiousness that has been a recurrent problem with the Coens’ work.