“Inside Llewyn Davis” Movie Review

     Somber and moody is the best way to describe the Coen Brother’s new film “Inside Llewyn Davis”, a film that has us tagging along with a down on his luck musician trying to make it in the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.  The singer, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), isn’t someone you will root for, but you may appreciate his persistence.  There’s no questioning he wants badly to be successful, but as the story lays out, he creates a number of self induced obstacles that impede him at every turn.  Joel and Ethan Coen have provided a number of classic films over the years, including the Academy Award winning “No Country for Old Men” and “Fargo”, but this film seems to be a departure of sorts, challenging the audience to find something to care about in Llewyn Davis, a task that becomes increasingly difficult with each passing scene.

     Llewyn has recently gone solo in his musical endeavors due to his partner committing suicide.  His new album “Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t selling and he therefore isn’t receiving royalties from his label.  With no other real source of income, Llewyn lives a life of couch surfing and bumming cigarettes.  He performs frequently at a local establishment called the Gaslight Cafe and each night is forced to seek out a place to sleep from his ever shrinking list of acquaintances.  Llewyn is clearly talented as a musician, but his personality seems to grate on people.  In the film’s initial scenes, we are introduced to Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) who Llewyn both frequently stays and collaborates with.  Jim doesn’t know of Llewyn’s affair with Jean and the fact she is pregnant without knowing who the father is.  Llewyn’s way of handling his affairs, particularly with Jean, really says a lot about his ability to be a responsible adult, an attribute he is failing at miserably.

     The Greenwich Village, New York City setting is particularly daunting, especially since the story takes place during the winter time.  Llewyn travels by foot everywhere with his guitar in tow and without the benefit of a proper coat.  We can feel the cold as he moves from place to place, desperate to be warm, yet committed to surviving at any cost.  A job in the Merchant Marines is all he has to go back to and he’s so desperate for money, he now takes gigs as a back up singer and guitar player, signing away his royalties for the chance at an immediate pay day.  He’s not a criminal and doesn’t hustle, but he seems to lack the social skills necessary to succeed.  Talented or not, it’s obvious relationships matter in his business and his bleak outlook on life seems to be a downer with most everyone he comes into contact with.

     In one of the film’s many recurring subplots, Llewyn wakes up on the couch of the Gorfeins, an older married couple who have come to appreciate his music.  When he leaves, he accidentally allows the couple’s cat to escape out the door, locking himself out in the process  He chases it down, but later loses the cat again while staying at Jean’s apartment.  He later returns what he thinks is the Gorfien’s cat and is invited to join them for dinner.  Knowing his musical talents, Lillian Gorfein (Robin Bartlett) politely asks Llewyn to use her husband’s guitar and perform a song at the dinner table.  If I’m in Llewyn’s shoes, I’m flattered at the request and would have no problem entertaining two people (and guests of theirs), especially since they are responsible most of the time for where I put my head down at night.  In a pivotal scene, Llewyn sees the request as beneath him and proceeds to treat everyone with a profanity laced rant that leaves Lillian in tears and her husband, Mitch (Ethan Phillips), dumbfounded.  The scene seems to be the greatest indicator as to why Llewyn isn’t making it in life.

     Isaac’s performance in the film is outstanding with each supporting performance (all of which seem minimal) contributing in a manner which leaves high marks for the entire ensemble.  We are treated throughout to several musical numbers performed by Isaac, Timberlake, and others, courtesy of music producer T-Bone Burnett, who also wrote the Oscar winning music for 2009’s “Crazy Heart”, which tend to liven up the proceedings and contribute greatly to the film’s authenticity.  The film overall doesn’t seem to add up to much, as it is structured more like a “day or week in the life” story with no real climactic payoff.  In fact, the Coens chose to begin and end the film with the exact same scene, the details of which are revealed at the end, but hardly qualify as a major revelation.  In the tradition of films like “There Will Be Blood”, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a character study that features solid performances and the quality you would expect from a Coen Brothers film, but likely won’t connect with mainstream audiences, a downfall shared by it’s protagonist.  GRADE: B-