A Dollar for Ev'ry Song I've Sung
The Coens did their homework but, despite East Coast higher educations, their Minnesota Midwestern roots show through in Inside Llewyn Davis. In the pre-Dylan Village folkie scene, no one waited in line, since customers were just packed in inside; bouncers may have patrolled bars for unruly drunks but not at peaceful coffee houses; and in anger or not, now-fashionable real or film Manhattan potty mouths were still a ways off.
The brothers, Oscar Isaac and John Goodman joked around for New York Film Festival press but skirted concrete answers. The hundred-five minutes includes a share of period music and of wry humor from characters -- or at their screen expense -- while redolent more of the Midwest than of Jewish-inflected 1961 New York Greenwich Village pre-division into “West” and “East.” Encapsulating the former is F. Murray Abraham’s Fargo-understated drollery as Chicago’s Gate of Horn impresario Bud Grossman, presumably from that folk music club’s Albert Grossman.
Shortcomings are not exactly in the acting. Constantly onscreen, Isaac carries his weight as the title wannabe singer-songwriter whose non-success is foreshadowed in a this-is-the-actual-future haloed Minnesotan as the lights go down. Handwriting is on New York’s Gaslight Café wall, as well, for the scrubbed cinema Kingston Trio and cable-knit Clancys clones who are not that future, either. And there are bits of outrageous nasty humorous reality in Goodman’s crippled overbearing and overweight addict Roland Turner and his stone taciturn driver, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).
The screening crowd found humor in angry Jean’s (Carey Mulligan) obscenity-heavy uncertainty about the paternity of the baby she carries, Llewyn’s or clean-cut Jim’s (Justin Timberlake), her singing and life partner. Viewers also chuckled at an aside of Pappi’s (Max Casella; the Dominican nickname implies “Sugar Daddy,” possibly here an error for widespread twenty-first-century “Papi”) that he and most everyone else has lusted after -- and had -- her. Her sights set on Suburbia and the implied trappings, she is not wrong in her damning assessment of the hero, which indeed makes sleeping with him in spite of his known bad track record a puzzle.
The film’s feat lies in engaging the viewer in the doings of an unlovable, emotionally shallow character. Llewyn -- “It’s Welsh”-- wants some artistic acclaim but does much to avoid it. He embarrasses or is hostile to other similar aspirants, alienates his small-time agent (Jerry Grayson), his sister Joy, nephew Danny (Jeanine Serralles, Jake Ryan) and depressed old-age-home father Hugh except when they might supply cash, is abrasive to Columbia University intelligentsia (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett) who for no discernible reason help him, and couch-hops wherever someone will put up with his mooching.
Sucker punched in an alley, bloodied and kicked, he gets deserved comeuppance early on, but the business is not clarified and is forgotten until the end, when we see that the tale is cyclical, closing near where it began, and that most of it is technically flashback.
Other than the suicide of a stage partner and that the singer manqué has been a merchant seaman like his father, and like Brooklyn’s Dave Van Ronk (whose uncompleted posthumous memoir and songs inform parts of the film), the past is not revealed. Llewyn springs full blown and neither changes nor reaches self-awareness. His single close approach to kindness is directed to a cat named Ulysses, but that’s prompted by worry about losing a soft touch.
One might point to sticking to his guns as a character plus. But he does so only after another out gets closed as the result of his own carelessness, and his low-key selfishness does not constitute the single-minded obsessiveness held up to defend men and women of talent or genius. Llewyn Davis comes across as a poor face in the crowd whose story’s seldom told, has its moments, but seems no more engrossing than most. Neither his nor the majority of theirs merits the hullabaloo.
(Released by CBS Films; rated “R” by MPAA.)