I look forward to Coen Brother's films as much as any other cinephile does, but Inside Llewyn Davis was one of the few I wasn't all that wild about seeing. It's mainly because I've never been that into folk music. Was I going to be able to enjoy a film set around an era and style of music I've never been into, and starring an actor I don't think I had heard of? Well it turns out they managed to make a movie that made me like and care about folk music. That's the true genius of the Coen Brothers, not their great storytelling and unusual characters and situations, but that they made me care about folk music. Okay, I'm kidding about that last part, but the Joel and Ethan Coen continue to prove time and time again that they are brilliant filmmakers and storytellers.
One thing you'll notice is that Inside Llewyn Davis isn't quite as quirky or as unusual as other Coen Brothers offerings. While there are a few funny things here and there, this plays as a pretty straight forward character piece, following a few days in the life of Llewyn Davis. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk musician in New York. He had a more successful act with his former partner, but he recently committed suicide, forcing Llewyn to try to make it as a solo act. Effectively homeless, Llewyn crashes on the couches of people that can't say no to him even though he seems to overstay his welcome. Llewyn isn't exactly the easiest guy to root for, it appears he has a habit of either straining or shitting on relationships. He's not completely unlikeable though.
As the songs were all performed live in the movie, rather than lip-synched, it really added to the authenticity. If I wasn't aware of many of the actors outside of the film, I would have thought they were all established folk singers. Granted it's no surprise Justin Timberlake can sing, but I was impressed with Carey Mulligan's voice. I am so generally clueless about the folk scene that I didn't even realize that most of these songs have been around for a long time. I thought they were all originals. Despite my reservations about the music, I ended up enjoying most of it, either tapping hands and feet along with it, or wanting to join in the singing myself.
I wondered if I actually knew about Oscar Issac from anything else, but then realized he was the best thing about 10 Years He's actually been in a ton of stuff, but mainly supporting roles and he's one of those guys that seems to blend in. In addition to being a great singer, he delivers a deep, soulful performance that lets you know he's moving on to bigger things in the acting world. There's a scene where he's auditioning for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) that actually gave me the chills, and it's such an honest and vulnerable moment that I was moved to tears. When Grossman gives his feedback, it's heartbreaking and I was concerned that Llewyn was moving towards a dark outcome, but was relieved when the story circles back. His final performance also brought chills as it's powerful moment that shows you that Llewyn may be coming out of his funk.
As far as the rest of the performances, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake were funny. John Goodman's character really stands out as one of most memorable of the film despite his limited time on screen. He's paired with Garrett Hedlund, who could have been played by a mute for all the dialog he had. Nothing against Hedlund, mind you, but I think he said like 5 words all film.
I also found an interesting parallel to complaints I heard about modern music. Llewyn is a talented, frustrated artist that's having a hard time getting his music sold, even heard. When Bud Grossman tells him, "I don't see a lot of money here," you see that anger and frustration in Llewyn's face. Meanwhile, a catchier, radio friendly song seems to be headed towards hit status. When about to perform it, he asks, "Who wrote this?" It's clear he thinks it's a ridiculous song, and Jim Berkey (Timberlake) looks hurt by the question.
We only hang out with Llewyn Davis for a short period of time, but it's a journey worth taking. Inside Llewyn Davis is a gloomy tale about a frustrated artist, but still has enough humor and heart that it's not depressing. Oscar Issac surprised me with one of the better performances of the year, and I can say the same about the Coen's surprising me with the movie. If anything, it kind of makes me want to get a cat, and I don't even like cats.
5 (out of 5) Death Stars