Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver and John Goodman
In UK Cinemas January 24th, 2014

by Ruth Thomson

Inside Llewyn Davis is not just the name of the Coen Brothers’ latest movie: it’s also the ponderous solo album title of the disaffected, disengaged and down on his luck folk singer protagonist of the film. It’s 1961 in New York’s Greenwich Village, and following the disintegration of his singing duo, thanks to his partner’s sudden suicide, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is skint, freezing and permanently in need of a sofa to crash on. To add insult to injury, he’s in a tricky situation with his folkie friends Jim and Jean, a polo neck clad duo of whimsy played by an endearingly guileless Justin Timberlake and an apocalyptically angry Carey Mulligan. Jean is knocked up and it could be Jim’s (good news) or Llewyn’s (bad news) – the message is clear: Llewyn is an asshole.

On the plot front, that’s about it. As our understated hero (?!) continues his quest to find some work and/or a warm bed, he encounters a chronic caricature in the shape of John Goodman’s irritating and frankly awful jazz musician Roland Turner, has a brief and unsatisfactory audition with a somewhat underutilised F. Murray Abraham, and even manages to piss off his two most reliable friends, the charmingly warm-hearted Gorfeins (Ethan Philips and Robin Bartlett who could teach Goodman a thing or two, or twenty). Oh and not surprisingly he gets punched in the face a couple of times.

There’s no denying that Oscar Isaac’s lead performance is impressive – he lends Davis an abject air of mediocrity and you’re never quite sure if he deserves your pity or not. Most importantly, his musical performances make the soundtrack one of the best things about the film. The Coens do their usual thing of conjuring up the period in painstaking detail and peopling it with cartoon like characters – from the elderly lip-sticked receptionist with her relentlessly pinging typewriter to Llewyn’s suburban skinny hipped sister with her gormless child and never ending piles of grocery bags. But what I usually love about their films – that they’re either crammed with tension, serious laughs, or at their very dark best both – seems to be missing here. The tone is melancholy all the way and the lack of lightness or hope makes for a linear experience – more than anything I just wanted something to happen – anything!!! The main thing I can’t forgive Joel and Ethan for though is writing, casting and directing Goodman’s character: lazy, lazy, lazy.

I’m reliably informed this film is a grower, and as big fan of most of their previous work I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, but for me Llewyn just isn’t the Coens at their best, no matter what Cannes say.

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