3 February 2014

Joel & Ethan Coen’s ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

Maybe it was the 1960s setting, maybe it was the folk music, but as I watched Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis the words of a rugby song I last heard years ago as a student came into my mind: “Why was he born so beautiful, Why was he born at all? …” (which then descends into something else). Was it the Davis character? The film is a circular account of a few days in the life of a folk singer in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1962. Llewyn is a ne’er-do-well – “… everything you touch turns to shit, you're like king Midas's idiot brother”, he is told, understandably, at one point, by Jean (Carey Mulligan), who may be pregnant by him rather than by her partner and Llewyn's friend, Jim.  But the artistic world is full of people like Llewyn who want in, and the separation of an individual’s success and failure seems to be a matter of luck as much as talent.

Perhaps it was not the main character but the feeling that so much film-making skill had been directed at so slight a product. The 1960s New York settings were very convincing (the subway a real work of art) as was Llewyn’s road trip to Chicago and back. Similarly all the casting was excellent with heavyweight, if brief, contributions from John Goodman and F Murray Abraham, as well as Isaac’s flawless portrayal of a flawed young man, artfully contrasted with Stark Sands’ Troy, a soldier with a promising career as a singer. It could be that I just don’t like folk music that much (a soft spot for Joan Baez apart), but having said that, the Please Mr Kennedy session is a joy.

If you find this review shallow, then read Francine Prose’s for Prospect Magazine:
Llewyn’s passion for that music, and his inability to create, for himself, a career—or a life—remind us of a current that runs through many of the Coen brothers’ films: you can have talent, promise, a moderate amount of decency and luck, and things might still not work out. This may be the least American aspect of the Coen’s work, the least characteristic of a culture that (openly and privately) believes that hard work and good intentions will pay off, and of a country in which, to quote Julian Barnes, “emotional optimism is a constitutional duty.”
It will also take you to Please Mr Kennedy on YouTube.

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