I don’t use the term genius too often, but The Coen Brothers are geniuses. Besides Quentin Tarantino, they are without a doubt, my favorite filmmakers working in film today. I love how they can switch from making something so obscure like A SERIOUS MAN to making a crowd pleasing western like TRUE GRIT, all at the same time maintaining their signature offbeat nature. Their first 8 movies for me are classics. BLOOD SIMPLE, RAISING ARIZONA, MILLER’S CROSSING, BARTON FINK, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, are wonderful. Every single one of their films get better with repeat viewings. There’s always something that I didn’t notice the first time. So of course I was absolutely thrilled about their first film in 3 years, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Something that I’ve noticed: The Coens’ rarely set their films in modern time. They’re almost always set in a specific time frame (with the exception of BLOOD SIMPLE, RAISING ARIZONA, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, THE LADYKILLERS, and BURN AFTER READING). And this film is not an exception.
The story takes place in early 60’s New York City, during the Folk music movement. The focus of the movie is entirely on a down and out folk artist by the name of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac). His former music partner committed suicide right before their act was about to break out. Now, he’s struggling with his solo act, as his new album severely underperformed. Without a home, Davis travels from couch to couch as he tries to get gigs and a new agent. Throughout the film, he ends up taking care of a friend’s cat, fights with a colleague’s girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) whom he’s had an affair with, travels to Chicago with a loudmouth Jazz Musician (John Goodman), and auditions for a major record producer.
That’s about it. The plot is relatively free-form. This is definitely not like O BROTHER, but more offbeat and strange like A SERIOUS MAN. The best thing about this film is the music. The film opens with Davis singing one of his songs in a smokey club, in its entirety. Definitely a great way of drawing you into this world. There are several terrific songs throughout. The first half of the movie is kind of a celebration of this genre of music, as the Coen’s clearly have an affection for it.
Unfortunately, the movie switches gears halfway through. Which is what the Coens’ usually do, so the fact that it went on a different path wasn’t the problem. It was the path it took. It gets a little dark, which is fine, but I thought it meandered a little too much. Now, I normally enjoy a good pointless movie, but this one gets so drab in tone, that it began to bring me down a bit. I also thought the film got a bit repetitive, as Davis’ journey to find himself goes on and on. The movie does salvage itself in the final minutes. I love the way the movie came together at the end in an unexpectedly clever way. But there was a good 25 minutes where the film was starting to lose me. Ultimately, I ended up liking the film, but not without some reservations.
As usual for a Coen Bros. film, it’s loaded with colorful characters. Oscar Issac delivers a starmaking performance as the title character. The fact that he sang and played all the songs makes his performance that much more convincing. Also, Davis isn’t really a likable character. So the fact that I didn’t out right hate the guy at the end of the movie says a lot about Issac’s charisma. He’s in almost every scene, and he does a great job carrying the movie. The rest of the cast are almost like extended cameos. Carey Mulligan stands out as the profanity spewing ex-flame. She has some of the film’s best comedic lines. John Goodman does what he usually does in a Coen Bros film, and that’s be awesomely bizarre. Justin Timberlake and Garrett Hedlund don’t have too much to do here, but they do what they can with what they are given.
The direction is fine. It’s not mindblowing like most of their other films. Of course their filmmaking is precise, but it’s more laid back than most of their other films. The photography has a nice, warm, fuzzy look to it that I liked though. The script is freely structured, and ultimately is the weak point of the film. It nearly falls apart, but the Coens’ end up salvaging the story by the end. Like I said, the high point of the film is the music. All of the songs are memorable. The highlight of the film is probably the song, “Please, Mr. Kennedy”, which is kind of hilarious. Don’t watch any clips of that before you see the movie. It’s best to discover that in the film. The songs are so good that it becomes a problem in the second half when the music disappears. There aren’t really any songs in the second half, except in the final scenes.
It may sound like I was a bit too hard on this film. And you’re probably right. That’s because I expect only the best from The Coen Bros. Instead, of excellence, they delivered a self-conscious film that just didn’t have the confidence that these guys normally demonstrate. This is easily the Coen Brothers worst film! But, that’s just how great their other films are. I still liked it, and I’m sure I will enjoy it more on repeat viewings. The first hour is fantastic, highlighted with great music and an engaging performance by Oscar Issac. The film almost loses its way, but not quite. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed, but I would like to point out that this IS a good movie. Just not a great one. Maybe that’s unfair to expect that every time from the Coen’s, but that’s what they get for making so many perfect films.
If you like offbeat films, and are a fan of more of the obscure work from the Coen’s (A SERIOUS MAN, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE), then you should enjoy it. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for language including some sexual references.
– Running time: 1hr 44min.