Joel and Ethan Coen have never made a movie that didn’t have at least a few big bubbles of perversity percolating through it. That said, one of the ways that I divide their work in my mind is that there are the Coen brothers films in which the perversity stays, for the most part, just below the surface (Blood Simple, Fargo, A Serious Man), which tend to be the Coen brothers movies that I love best. And there are the ones in which perversity stands up and pokes you in the eye (Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), which I, for one, have always found tiresome. Their new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, which premiered tonight at Cannes, is set in the Greenwich Village folk-music scene of the early ’60s, and on the Coen perversity scale, I’d say that it’s right smack dab in the middle in a way that I found far from tiresome — the picture is lovingly crafted, eminently watchable, at times even inspired — yet ultimately frustrating. Inside Llewyn Davis comes just close enough to being an authentic, deep-dish portrait of a vital moment in pop-culture history that I felt a bit of an eye poke when it also turned out to be one of the Coens’ masochistic/misanthropic tall tales.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a folk musician who looks to be in his late 20s, is the living definition of “struggling,” even though he’s far from a failure. He has a manager/exploiter, Mel (Jerry Grayson), who never pays him, so he’s constantly strapped for cash, and he doesn’t even have an apartment; instead, he crashes on his friends’ couches, just like Phil Ochs did. He’s a talented scrounger, living on the pass-around of the basket after his gigs, really a step away from dereliction. Yet most up-and-coming musicians would kill for a record deal, and Llewyn has already cut and released several albums, one of them with his former singing partner, Mike (they were known as Tiplin & Davis, and their record was called If I Had Wings). Now he’s gone solo, with an album called Inside Llewyn Davis, which is his bid to break out of what he sees as the coffee-house ghetto.
It’s 1961, America has gone folk-crazy, and Llewyn wants to be a star. He might even have what it takes: The movie opens with Llewyn, in dramatic closeup, performing a song at the Gaslight Café, and he’s a terrific singer — direct, emotional, and pure. Oscar Isaac, the Guatamalan-born actor and musician who plays him, has hooded dark eyes set off here by a thick, trim folkie beard and unruly black hair (he looks like Lenny Bruce as a hipster rabbinical student), and he gives Llewyn an earnest, solid, dweeby-sexy, folkie-everyman presence. I was all set to find Llewyn a rich and fascinating character. What he turns out to be, instead, is a major a—-hole. And, courtesy of the Coens, he’s going to get what’s coming to him.
The first hint that Llewyn has a personality as off-putting as his singing is sweet comes just after that opening scene, when he’s called out to the alley in back of the club so that someone can beat the crap out of him (we’re given only a clue as to why, though we find out later). Then he goes over to the apartment of his folkie friends, Jean (Carey Muligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), who are a couple. Jean, a very pretty girl in her turtlenecks and ironed hair, reveals to him that she’s pregnant (by either Llewyn or Jim — she’s not sure which), and the everybody’s-sleeping-with-everybody feeling is authentically Village, except that we soon learn that Jean despises Llewyn. Sitting in Washington Square Park, Carey Mulligan plays Jean by letting the anger rip, and she’s gripping, but there’s no second dimension to her hostility. It’s all she’s given to play.
Except…. the Coens stage another scene at the Gaslight, where Troy (the terrific Stark Sands), Jean and Jim’s Army-recruit buddy, is also an aspiring folk singer, and after he beckons Jean and Jim up onto the club stage, they do a version of “500 Miles,” which is one of the most beautiful songs of the last half century, and I’m sorry, maybe the Coens meant this scene to be ironic, or representative of how good-looking vanilla singers like Jean and Jim and Troy blanded out folk music, but I was transported by it.
At this point, I figured that Inside Llewyn Davis just had to be the Coen brothers’ version of a joyful and acerbic folk musical. After all, A Mighty Wind proved that you could mock folk music without mercy and pay rapturous tribute to it at the same time. (That’s the genius — and humanity — of Christopher Guest.) And that feeling only grew when Jim, minus a singer-guitarist, calls Llewyn in at the last minute for a recording session at Columbia Records, and they and two other musicians, including Girls‘ Adam Driver as a singing cowboy who makes novelty noises, record an ebullient satirical number called “Please Mr. Kennedy” (“Please, Mr. Kennedy!/Please don’t shoot me into outer space!”) that’s so scrumptiously catchy and funny and impeccably right for the period that the Cannes audience I saw it with applauded when it was over. I joined in the applause and thought: More, please!
But there is very little more of that. It’s around this point that Inside Llewyn Davis takes a turn, with Llewyn heading out of town for a road trip that devolves into a series of disasters. It’s the beginning of his Big Crash, a downfall precipitated by his own troubled nature: his refusal to connect with anyone, his relentless scavenging, the acting out of his career frustration in scenes of defiant cruelty. The audience gets the message, but at a certain point I wondered: Wow, when did this go from being a movie about folk musicians to an early parable of borderline personality disorder? Given that a lot of musicians who made it were major dicks (which, in many cases, may have been a part of the reason why they made it), it seems churlish of the Coens to set up Llewyn as a gifted and passionate musician who sourly cultivates the seeds of his own failure and therefore deserves to fail.
It seems especially perverse considering that the Coens have brought to life the sleepy bohemian West Village of the just-pre-Dylan ’60s with a spangly authenticity that just about leaps off the screen. There’s now a Mad Men fascination to this era, and the Coens ingeniously employ real locations (including the still-standing espresso-bar relic Caffe Reggio) to evoke downtown New York in 1961, when even the “hottest” parts of the city had a pre-media-culture grayness, and the scuzziness of the apartments — the dingy, peeling-paint rooms and comically narrow hallways — were romantic in their very discomfort. You had to want to be in Greenwich Village, playing folk songs for peanuts (sometimes literally), in order to get up on stage and do it. And Llewyn Davis, though he’s not a nice guy, has that spirit and drive. Why the Coen brothers, who created Llewyn, would then want to spend an entire movie trashing his dream is an issue that I’m sure Coen cultists could (and will) defend. For me, Inside Llewyn Davis is a tantalizing teaser of a movie that only made me hungry to see a folk-music drama that could take the truly audacious risk of total sincerity.
Owen’s other posts from Cannes: