While I was watching Inside Llewyn Davis, my thoughts frequently turned to The Big Lebowski. I suppose this is unsurprising, as both films are masterpieces brought to us by the Coen Brothers. But there are other similarities as well.
To start with, both narratives are very loosely structured. Llewyn Davis — as with Lebowski — is a hodgepodge of barely-related storylines, all of which are more symbolically relevant than vital to the (borderline-nonexistent) central plot. Both films are loaded with quirky side characters to create the Coens’ unique brand of darkly awkward humor, yet many of them could be cut without causing much harm to the overall story. Still, the Coens get away with this unusual approach by putting all of their emphasis on a single compelling character.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, in a starmaking turn) has the misfortune of being a folk singer in a time before Dylan came along to revitalize the genre. He’s struggling to get by, in large part because the musical landscape is clearly turning toward a more pop-like direction. Of course, this isn’t the first time a movie has given us an outdated protagonist at risk of getting wiped out by oncoming change (The Artist is a recent Oscar-friendly example), but the Coens have thrown in a twist.
See, Llewyn used to be part of a double-act until his partner up and killed himself. So now Llewyn is trying to prove himself as a solo artist, and he’s clearly very good, but he was so much better in the old days. As such, Llewyn’s obsolescence is made into a tangible fact. His old status quo is quite literally dead, and the new status quo has no place for him, so Llewyn can only drift from one place to another. It’s a tragic position to be in, and the character has more than enough talent to make his bad luck all the more shameful, which keeps the character sympathetic.
Another factor is that (again, much like The Dude), Llewyn means well. He’s easy to get along with and he really does try to do well by his friends. Sure, the guy has a nasty habit of fucking up everything he touches, but it’s purely unintentional and we can see that he feels awful about it. Of course, Llewyn is a drifter with a terrible allergy to any kind of responsibility, but at least he has the excuse of being a starving artist who doesn’t want to bow to conformity. Even though, on some level, Llewyn knows he’ll have to sink that far as his options keep dwindling.
(Side note: It’s worth remembering that this film was loosely inspired by a ’60s folk singer named Dave Van Ronk. The guy even had a record named “Inside Dave Van Ronk,” with a cover suspiciously resembling that of Llewyn Davis’ album. Also, about two-thirds into the film, you’ll hear about a certain trio — two guys and a girl — that Llewyn is invited to join. Without spoiling the inside joke, let’s just say that particular trio went on to much greater fame than Llewyn did.)
Anyway, part of what makes Llewyn such a compelling character is because of all the insanity he reacts to throughout this movie. Carey Mulligan is on hand, playing a vindictive shrew who was somehow lured into bed with Llewyn for one (presumably blind drunk) moment. Justin Timberlake plays her husband, a goody-two-shoes pop folk singer who doesn’t seem to have much in the way of brains. Ethan Phillips plays Professor Mitch Gorfein, whose cat accidentally ends up in Llewyn’s care, which goes about as well as you might expect. Jeanine Serralles also appears, memorably playing Llewyn’s sister to give him all manner of grief.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention F. Murray Abraham, who plays a brief yet pivotal role as a talent agent in Chicago. He stands in marked contrast to Llewyn’s current agent, played with humorous senility by Jerry Grayson. Speaking of funny old guys, a far more annoying fat windbag is played by John Goodman. It’s obvious that the Coen Brothers wrote the part for their recurring collaborator, because there’s no way anyone else could have made the character nearly as funny. Also, Garrett Hedlund appears as Goodman’s chauffeur. After this and his turn in On the Road, I’d be perfectly happy if Hedlund just kept on playing mid-century street toughs. That seems to be a good fit for him.
With the supporting cast out of the way, let’s get to discussing the two main attractions of this film. One of them is Oscar Isaac, who can look forward to a hard-earned and well-deserved career spike after his extraordinary weather-beaten performance here. The second one is the music. The picture has numerous musical segments and they are all sublime. The production is rock-solid. The writing is fantastic throughout, particularly in how it’s just subtle enough to distinguish the more traditional folk songs from the “pop folk” songs that Llewyn so obviously despises. The sound design is exceedingly good, allowing us to hear dialogue while the songs are still loud and clear in the background. Of course, it helped that the Oscar-winning T-Bone Burnett came back to collaborate on yet another Coen Brothers soundtrack (he has credits on The Big Lebowski, The Ladykillers, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?).
Justin Timberlake is in the cast, and he needs no introduction. Yet the cast also features Adam Driver and Stark Sands, both of whom have played on Broadway. Carey Mulligan also has a wonderful singing voice (see also: her rendition of “New York, New York” in Shame), and Oscar Isaac shows some fantastic chops. What makes it even better is that watching the film, you can tell it’s all there onstage. Every single musical number was performed live on set (save only for “The Auld Triangle,” when Timberlake is supposed to be singing bass), and it really shows. Awe-inspiring work.
Credit is also due to the Punch Brothers, a bluegrass band who was called in to lend some assistance. Last but not least, it bears mentioning that Burnett produced this soundtrack with Marcus Mumford, who also sings on the soundtrack. Yes, that Marcus Mumford. The lead singer and namesake of Mumford and Sons. Turns out that Carey Mulligan went and married the guy who made a living out of bringing folk songs to a mainstream 21st-century audience.
On a final note, I must address the visuals. It’s interesting how the film has a very bleached-out look. I assume that this was to draw attention to the film’s winter setting, but it also has the subconscious side effect of helping me see Llewyn’s bitter worldview. Conversely, one of the film’s main comic relief characters is a bright orange housecat (who gives yet another outstanding performance, I should add). I liked how the cat’s bright orange color popped against the film’s depressingly grey color palette, which somehow helped make the character more effective as comic relief.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a Coen Brothers film above all else. The plot is thinly-structured, but it’s worth it just to see the humorous supporting cast, the fantastic music, and the compelling main character. The basic premise of a talented and well-intentioned slacker may not be new to the Coens’ filmography, and the basic theme of “change or die” is hardly new to cinema as a whole, but the Coens still find new and more entertaining ways of utilizing those story elements.
Overall, it’s a very effective dramatic musical comedy that certainly should not be missed. Especially if you’re an Academy Awards completist.