Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

by Matt Piucci

I love the Coen Brothers. Let’s get that out of the way immediately. I will see anything they do, and have enormous respect for their body of work. I also believe they made one of the ten best comedies of all time in The Big Lebowski.Inside Liewyn Davis Poster

I recently went to see Inside Llewlyn Davis, a film I was fully prepared to like. I understood that it was not really the story of Dave van Ronk, or an adaptation of van Ronk’s biography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. I did not expect a traditional biopic, no more than I expected The Big Lebowski to be about the Coen’s friend whose rug “tied the room together.” It was a starting point and I give artists like these all the room they need to come up with their usually brilliant and funny insights into the human condition. However, this time I was disappointed.

What I find interesting is how different people perceive the same art. I have read reviews that agreed with me, that the movie was long on cliché and short on story; I have also read reviews that heaped praise on this work.

Like The Wolf of Wall Street, this is a flawed work by a pair of masters - long on style but short on substance but nonetheless worthy of examination due to the power of the filmmakers. Their failures would be someone else’s masterpiece. There were moments in this film that were well done. The music is beautiful and stands on its own; lead actor Oscar Isaac has a strong and interesting voice and his vocal performances were good. The milieu is authentic and there a few oblique references that I thought were cool, such as the reference to Orlovsky’s “Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs”. Bob Dylan looms large over the scene but I liked how he was barely in the film at all except for a very brief moment at the end, signaling the change we all know is coming. Ultimately though, the good music does not mitigate the effect of an uninteresting lead (not just unsympathetic). Nor do the songs hold up the sagging weight of lame plot devices such as the cat, the dead ex-partner, the kind and dorky patrons who put up with this jerk because he was an “artist” or the pregnant ex-girlfriend. Surprisingly, the Coens are usually one of the few modern filmmakers who do not co-opt the emotional impact of specific music as a way to avoid good writing; except here they did.

Filmmaking at its heart is storytelling and there just is not a story here. Also the lead character is a complete jerk, but not interesting enough to merit sympathy for his sad sack routine. Clichés abound: the ridiculous agent for the lead character and his equally ridiculous old school secretary are paper-thin versions of real people. John Goodman’s junkie jazzbo was a funny diversion that interested me briefly but was not essential to the story. Actor Garrett Hedlund played Goodman’s driver, and he is someone to watch. He has a powerful and magnetic presence despite virtually no lines. His performance in the most recent film version of On the Road was excellent playing Jack Kerouac’s troubled side kick and muse Dean Moriarty. That’s a film I recommend.

Some people are truly pre-disposed to like or hate something. In my own case I can cite the “Hobbit” series. I am a hopeless Tolkein nerd and I adored the film trilogy but my wife rolls her eyes every time I bring it up. To an unbiased viewer the Hobbit is a bloated exercise that tries to milk every last dime out of a children’s bedtime story. Guess what- I don’t care. I loved every minute and did not care that the character Legolas is not in the book or that the newly minted hottie character (Tauriel) played by the woman from Lost (Evangeline Lilly) is not in any of Tolkein’s works.

It can be difficult to ascertain in advance whether a fanatic is going to like something (as I did the Hobbit), or hate it because of inflated expectation. Perhaps it’s like drunks, you never can tell who will be a happy one or who will be a mean one.

So it is with this film. The New York Times loved it; the San Francisco Chronicle hated it, recognizing it for what it was- a mediocre work by great filmmakers. I have a theory. New Yorkers, or specifically Manhattanites, are actually quite provincial, despite their reputation. In this instance they were duped by the flash that spoke to their preconceived notions of themselves, rather than plot, writing and sympathetic characters (or at least engaging ones). It’s the same way New Yorkers perceive their Yankees – thinking they are run by geniuses who know everything about baseball when in fact the true reason for the Yankees long time success is economic; they spend way more money, often several times more, than their competitors. It is similar to the boy whose rich Dad buys him a fast sports car and thinks he is special when he beats a VW bug in a race.Inside Llewyn Davis Cat

Perhaps New Yorkers (at least the Times critic) saw more in this film than I did because they long for a version of their city that no longer exists. And they are willing to accept this mediocre work and impute resonance to it that it does not possess. There is no there there anymore. The myth of the struggling artist who can couch surf his way from one sympathetic patron to the next is no longer even a viable fantasy. Even the patrons in this piece no longer exist; there is no middle class on the entire Island of Manhattan. Because of America’s increasing wealth gap made far worse in an expensive city like New York, Manhattan is dead and long since yuppified. All the artists and vitality are in Brooklyn just as Oakland is to SF. Art=vitality=life and there is little to be found in what used to be the greatest city on earth. Perhaps the new, leftist mayor of New York is a response by its voting citizens to this inequality. We shall see.

I can’t get too upset when people find comfort in art, any art. We all can be deluded by our prejudices and all have what has been referred to as “guilty pleasures”. I would not want to be too harsh on the Coen brothers; film making is a weird business where a dud can cost millions. At least when Bob Dylan writes a clunker (not too often) the recording is over in a day and it can’t bring down a production company. But this won’t happen with the Coens because they are so talented, and fortunately do their own thing regardless of what anyone else might think, least of all me. And I will definitely go see their next one. Which I hope is better than this.

Go see Nebraska. Now there is a movie.

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