"You say you've lost your faith, but that's not where it's at. You had no faith to lose and you know it."— Bob Dylan, "Positively 4th Street"
The Coen Brothers' new film Inside Llewyn Davis is a quirky study in ingratitude that borrows heavily from several of the brothers' earlier films, especially Barton Fink, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and A Serious Man. And if you aren't into all that highbrow mess, there's also a cat to look at.
Barton Fink explored the creative culture of Hollywood in the 1940s, employing highly fictionalized versions of Clifford Odets and William Faulkner. Similarly, Inside Llewyn Davis is set against the backdrop of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s and borrows personalities from the early days of hoots and basket shows, before Bob Dylan showed up and changed everything. Like Barton Fink, the Inside story addresses how artists and intellectuals relate to, objectify, and exploit "common folk," only this time around, the brothers might also be engaging in a little secret self-mockery and criticism along the way. After all, the film does essentially begin with its smug protagonist being beaten up by the kind of heavily accented yokel the Coens usually like to laugh at. It ends that way too, while the voice of another singer, who sounds an awful lot like Dylan, leaks out of the Gaslight folk club.
Calling to mind the Job-like character at the heart of A Serious Man, nothing goes right for Llewyn Davis, expertly rendered by Oscar Isaac. He's homeless, jobless, hitless, and, on top of it all, he's gotten his best friend's wife pregnant ... maybe. The difference from A Serious Man is that the titular folkie catches some good breaks. But like King Midas in reverse — the twisted myth at the heart of this new Coen odyssey — he turns it all to shit.
In an early, character-defining scene, Davis, on his never-ending couch tour from hell, visits the tragic offices of his record label expecting to pick up a check. But his record hasn't sold well (or maybe even at all) and there's nothing waiting for him.
"There must be something," an agitated Davis insists, pointing out that winter is settling in hard over the city and he can't even afford to buy a coat. The label head, Mel (Jerry Grayson), responds sympathetically and tries to give the artist the coat off his back, which the angry and unrelentingly insulting Davis refuses to take. He has come for a cash payment and won't stop complaining and making a scene until Mel gives him 40 bucks to go away.
Although the music industry has a well-documented history of cheating artists, one gets the sense that's not the case with Davis, whose shortsightedness and corrosive sense of personal entitlement create obstacles even where none exist. No matter how gifted this singer of old songs may be, he has no respect — or even tolerance — for history, heritage, authenticity, family, or tradition. He just wants to be on the side that's winning and has reduced everything of worth to a single, slick catchphrase: "If it's never new, and it never gets old, it's a folk song."
That phrase also seems to be the formula for this patchwork film, except, for the Coens and T-Bone Burnett, their musical collaborator, it works.
Coen heavy-hitter John Goodman returns to play a junkie jazzbo who hates folk singers, and F. Murray Abraham is fantastic as the music promoter who breaks things down for Davis: "I don't see much money there." But this film's most memorable scene — a redux of the instantly energizing "sing into the can" scene from O Brother — features Isaac and Adam Driver backing Justin Timberlake on the infectious and deeply silly "Please Mr. Kennedy." The song, which Davis can play but doesn't really get, is an obvious hit. Too bad Davis forfeited royalties to take a day rate and get paid on the spot.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Opens Friday, December 20th
Ridgeway Cinema Grill