‘Llewyn Davis’: Failure as the only option

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake in Joel and Ethan Coens Inside Llewyn Davis. (Alison Rosa/Long Strange Trip)

Llewyn Davis, the main character in the latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen, is along a line with other Coen characters, guys whose dreams never quite pay off, usually because of a failing in their character. And Inside Llewyn Davis is merciless in demonstrating the consequences of Davis’ obstinacy, irresponsibility and general ineptness — qualities not redeemed by his being a good musician.

Set mainly in New York City in 1961, the film shows Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) near the bottom of what has passed for a musical career. Formerly part of a musical duo, he is struggling as a solo act. His record, bearing the same title as the movie, hasn’t sold. He sleeps on other people’s couches. He is constantly short of money, He is sexually reckless, knocking up the wife of a friend. He drinks too much. The folk wave is big for some at this point — the Kingston Trio had had hits by this point — but all these folks with guitars are about to be blown away by the likes of Bob Dylan.

Dylan is seen at the end of the film, but only after we have seen what a hash Davis has made of his life. His name has echoes of Llewelyn Davies, the last name of the boy who inspired Peter Pan — and Davis has also declined to grow up. He takes pride in being part of what some of the extensive notes on the Inside Lleywn Davis website call “purehearted refugees from the American mainstream, proud of their secret knowledge” of ancient songs.

Indeed, the movie begins with a touching Davis performance — but follows it with his getting assaulted for previous misbehavior. It then flashes back through the days leading up to that beating and all that is going wrong for Davis. He is berated by the woman he impregnated (a fierce Carey Mulligan), tries to scrounge money from his record company, makes a car trip to Chicago with a brutally blunt musician (John Goodman), auditions in Chicago for a big shot (F. Murray Abraham), chases a cat, insults some hosts, considers a trip to Akron (which he does not take) — and makes some music, until we have circled back to that movie-opening performance and beating.

Isaac is a sharp performer — look for his acoustic version of Katy Perry’s Roar for Jimmy Fallon — and the Coens are quite happy to devote screen time to entire performances of songs by him and others. But that’s not enough in a world of small clubs and smaller audiences. Davis’ best chance of success comes not from his repertoire of old songs (credit T Bone Burnett with assembling yet another marvelous soundtrack) but from a novelty song, Please Mr. Kennedy, that a friend invites him to play on. And even that moment has its share of irony,

As a whole, in fact, Inside Llewyn Davis argues that his life provides moments of authenticity as powerful as those in the songs he cherishes. He encounters death, despair, loss and the complications of love — but then retreats into his old songs, and his losing ways. And the Coens are as merciless about Davis as they have been about characters in previous films when life runs smack into their dreams.

The Coens once again make a visually effective world, this one full of dingy rooms, narrow hallways and windswept streets, and still seemingly without much room for Davis. The cast is also good, from Isaac through Goodman, Abraham, Mulligan and, as Mulligan’s husband, Justin Timberlake. Davis’ failure is so chronic that it can get exhausting, and you may wish he could catch one sustained break. But Davis has made the sort of choices that don’t make that possible, This is not on the level of some of the Coens’ films; after all, these are guys who made Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother Where Are Thou? (which gets a little nod in Llewyn Davis), the more recent version of True Grit. But it is bitterly funny, And the soundtrack made me want both to hear it and reach back for recordings from the period it so ably presents.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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