Skip to main content

Hey look… I’m really happy for the gig, but who… wrote this?

Inside Llewyn Davis
(2013)

(SPOILERS) The cat is the hat. At least, as far as Joel and Ethan Coen motifs are concerned. It seems nigh on impossible for the brothers to make a bad movie. Occasionally they disappoint slightly (The Ladykillers) but usually they invite praise so effusive, it’s embarrassing. Inside Llewyn Davis falls into the category of one of their smaller, more offbeat, and idiosyncratic pictures, although such lines are always blurry (they rarely make costly, commercially calculated fare), and it comes up as one of their very best. Of course, their very best number about two thirds of their output. Such reliability ensures their pictures feel like special gifts, to be savoured and cherished when they arrive every couple of years.


The brothers clearly enjoy immersing themselves in period trappings (tellingly, they’ve expressed zero interest in making a science fiction movie; apart from anything else, where would they locate their reference points?), and the milieu of Davis is a new one; 1961 New York and the vibrant Greenwich Village folk scene. They aren’t slaves to authenticity, however (a number of anachronistic details skew later, but fit the overall mood or themes); it’s the evocation of the time rather than rigorous details that they’re after. I don’t know my Dave van Ronk, but the Coens loosely based Llewyn Davis on his posthumously published autobiography The Mayor of McDougal Street. They go their own way, of course, and this is all a frame to explore another of their misbegotten heroes, for whom nothing quite seems to work and who, either through blinkeredness or bloody-mindedness, is his own worst enemy. Several of their previous creations come to mind; the spiralling into chaos of A Serious Man, the self-involved playwright of Barton Fink. And informing the mood is a wonderfully immersive soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett, who performed similar duties on their most musical earlier picture O Brother, Where Art Thou?


So there are certain familiar beats here, and recognisable character quirks, but there’s never the remotest feeling they’re repeating themselves. And, for a movie that follows its lead’s unfocussed path, Davis never comes across as if it’s blowing in the wind, in search of a narrative. I’m very glad the Coens put the cat(s) in, but that’s the only justification for their concern that there was too little plot. It’s a typically bemusing comment from them anyway and, given their amusingly unforthcoming way with interviews when pressed to unburden themselves of thematic devices or subtexts, it was probably not intended completely seriously (perhaps the need not to expose subtexts partly explains why science fiction wouldn’t appeal; it’s difficult to get way from overt readings in that genre).


Is Davis really a loser, or is he the victim of the cruelty of the Fates? The Coens won’t be drawn on such matters. It’s quite evident that, like the also titular Barton Fink, Llewyn looks down on much of the creative output his peer group, be it friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan, though Jean isn’t so keen on Llewyn) or guileless soldier boy Troy Nelson (Stark Sands). Barton fetches up in Hollywood, where his attempts to reveal something beautiful fall on deaf ears. Barton is more hoisted by his own petard than Llewyn, perhaps, but both are equals at digging their own holes, unable to discern the dividing line between the purity of their art and entrenchedness of their egos. Davis is given more tangible pain (he has lost Mike, his former singing partner, to suicide) but is too self-involved too make good on the help others offer him. We see it with the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), whose cat he loses, and Jean, whose stream of vitriol seems to confirm that only ill can come to Davis (but also must also surely conceal genuine feeling; its unclear if she sleeps with Max Casella’s Pappi to secure Davis a gig, but there’s a strong implication that’s the case).


Davis isn’t a bad guy; he means well, but he can only really express kindness for Ulysses the cat, for Ulysses surrogate, and show for empathy towards the cat he later broadsides. The Coens will no doubt claim that the cat is just a cat, but it’s Llewyn’s genuine care (at the expense of a conversation with Jean over terminating her pregnancy) that invites an appreciation of his finer qualities, only otherwise exposed when he is playing. It’s in the latter moments, rehearsing old standards or not, that we see the genuine feeling, giving the lie to his claim that it’s only for the money.


He’s a contradictory character; of course he is. And the Coens love to pile on their characters’ pain almost as much as Sam Raimi likes to beat on Bruce Campbell. But in this case there’s a roundedness that ascends beyond stylistic indulgence and cute jokes (and I do love their formal stretching, and would never claim to be disappointed by their apparent indifference to deep and meaningful explorations of life and existence; for one thing, when they broach such areas they can’t do it entirely straight-faced, and I think I’d be disappointed if they did). Davis is so affecting because he’s hopelessly wayward, lost unto himself. Disaster compounds disaster, to the point where he looks to have given up on his dream; he’s resigned to getting back to the Merchant Navy and making some money. But that also seems to elude him. Compounding the cosmic joke, the last scene finds Llewyn sharing the bill with someone about to make it big. While fame awaits Bob Dylan, Davis props himself up, rueful and broken, in the club’s back alley.


The Coens ask us to accompany Davis in his inexorable, almost stoical downfall. It’s not a tragedy so much as an inevitability, of which Davis seems balefully resigned. He engages in the occasional temperamental outburst (at the club, leading to a beating) but he’s also the observer of his slow disintegration. Jean isn’t so far wrong, amid the invective, when she accuses him of willing himself to fail. But Isaac makes Davis likable, even at his worst when heckling a poor performer in a fit of pique. Although the Coens allow the lead to be buffeted as much as their average protagonist, there’s a sense of affection here too; they aren’t just mischief-making with him from a lofty remove.


It’s not made clear how much of Davis’ disposition results from the death of his partner Mike (who even managed to jump off the wrong bridge in his bid to escape from the world). The reason for his ex not telling him she was keeping the child is not expanded upon (nor is the time frame relating to this and Mike’s death), but it suggests Davis’ traits are not recent ones. He was no ray of sunshine even before his loss.  But his loss clearly doesn’t help; his outburst at the Gorfeins is directly related to Mikey, and Jean may have slept with the bar owner out of pity for his going-nowhere solo arse.


Davis is heartfelt in his apologies, but the morbid content of his songs suggests an inability to escape his prison. Jean’s contention that everything he touches turns to shit even seems true of cats (his father actually does shit himself when Davis plays for him). Maybe he doesn’t want to succeed without his partner; but we’re never really privy to how much he valued their artistic collaboration. Only in his final show; the last performance we see features one of “their” songs, and that the performance is so heartfelt is surely crucial.


The twisted reflection of Davis’ artistic pose (he is a talented interpreter but not a creator of songs) is found in John Goodman’s vituperative jazz musician Roland Turner; he shows a level of disdain that makes Davis mocking acts or Jim’s flagrantly commercial instincts look meek and mild. Turner has only bile, spewing forth, expressing himself more than just words as, overdosing, he topples forward onto the floor of a men’s room like a huge floundering fish. The precise nature of Turner’s relationship with Garett Hedlund’s taciturn Beat poet (who is on the road) is left to the imagination, but this isn’t a world where everyone else is happier than the unlucky protagonist. They’re just more compromised and less itinerant.


The supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Even Timberlake, who was the only bum note in The Social Network. Ethan Phillips, best known as the ultra-irritating Neelix in Star Trek Voyager makes his Coens debut, but seems like ideal actor fodder for them. Max Cassella, Hedlund and Adam Driver (hilarious in his contribution to Please Mr Kennedy) are great, Mulligan as perfect as ever and it’s always a joy to see Abraham and Goodman.


T Bone Burnett’s musical choices are as persuasive as those in O Brother. And Isaac’s performances are tremendous (the climactic Fare the Well, especially). Most of the songs are reworked traditional pieces (as Llewyn says, "If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song") but there’s an original comic highlight in Please Mr Kennedy that, if South Park can get an Oscar nom, really should have been recognised (it’s notable too how Davis, for all his tortured posturing, really enjoys jamming to such a flaky tune). Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is gorgeous; the faded poster suggests something verging on the monochrome, but there's more to this than just the muted browns of times past. His is a vivid palate, albeit a wintery one, as you’d expect from the frequent colleague of Jean Pierre Jeunet and Tim Burton. The close-ups of Davis singing are as striking as the blizzards he drives through. The freeway has the sort of subtle menace last seen in Blood Simple. It’s a testament to Delbonnel that Roger Deakins isn’t missed.


And the cat. It’s best just to enjoy the Coens’ peccadillos, as attempts to root out the layers beneath are doomed. One might pick the obvious and note that Llewyn’s journey goes nowhere while Ulysses makes it home against incredible odds and to a rapturous welcome from his family (The Incredible Journey poster, two years too early, is a nice touch that I’m sure the tickled brothers couldn’t resist). They may have enjoyed working with cats as little as Oscar Isaac, but no one lets it show. The kitties irresistible and adorable, from Ulysses’ bewildered gaze out of a subway train window, as stations rush by, to the poor wounded moggy dragging itself into roadside shrub to expire after the distraught Llewyn has hit him.


Does Llewyn make it aboard the ship? Who knows; what is essential is that he is getting out just as Dylan is about to make it big. The moment where Davis attempts to secrete his box of unsold records under a table, only to find Al Cody’s box of unsold records already there might suggest that Davis isn’t making the wrong choice; it isn’t just his temperament that is stalling greater recognition.


I doubt the Coens care too much that Inside Llewyn Davis only received a sliver of Oscar attention. They’re probably wryly amused whatever happens, as that’s their thing. Noms did nothing for A Serious Man’s fortunes, although the shut out this time seems almost arbitrary. I’d like to say this is their best film in years, but that would only make it their best film since A Serious Man, and before that No Country For Old Men. Certainly though, in Inside Llewyn Davis they have created one of their greatest lead characters and a picture that can be embraced as much for it’s superb (and funny, and tragic) use of music as their trademark mordant wit and melancholic foreboding. Shit happens to Llewyn Davis, but the universe is unforthcoming as to exactly why; grief, self-indulgence, haplessness? Or all of those things. Such inscrutability is the Coen brothers all over.


*****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.