I've been a fan of the Coen brothers since their second film, Raising Arizona, in 1987. Back then, Joel and Ethan Coen were definitely the weird kids with a distinct voice, but it was one a lot of people just didn't get. But over the course of their 30-year career, they've somehow become the cool kids, doing the quirky movies they wanted to as audiences and critics caught up to and got comfortable with their idiosyncratic style. Now, after being outsiders, the Coens are in the strange position of having critics seemingly tripping over each other to lionize whatever they do -- and I feel like that's what might be happening with their latest film Inside Llewyn Davis, which won the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes Film Festival and, despite my love and admiration for the brothers, I just couldn't get into. Watch the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis below.
Set in 1961 in the Greenwich Village folk music scene days before Bob Dylan arrived to turn the place on its ear, the film spends a week with Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer (played by Oscar Isaac) at the end of his rope with no money, no place to live, and without even a warm coat to keep out the New York winter. Before Dylan came and did for folk music and Greenwich Village what Nirvana did for Seattle and grunge, the folk scene was a place for true believers covering and trading old folk songs while attempting to capture the romanticized spirit and authenticity of the troubadours who created them.
Llewyn is one of these folk singers, though maybe less now as the economic realities of two failed albums -- one with a partner who committed suicide and a later solo effort -- have him on the brink of quitting music altogether. Though when you hear Llewyn play, with the music performed live by Isaac, you can hear that Llewyn indeed has talent and soul, though not necessarily the type that sells albums. And when he prefaces a song with, "If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song," it sounds more like a backhanded compliment.
The film follows Llewyn, who isn't terribly nice or responsible, as he wanders New York scrounging for couches to sleep on from his increasingly annoyed sister (played by Jeanine Serralles), an uptown intellectual couple (played by Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) whose cat Llewyn loses, and from his folk singer friend Jim (played by Justin Timberlake) whose irate girlfriend and bandmate Jean (played by Carey Mulligan) Llewyn has impregnated. There's also an attempt by Llewyn to rejoin the merchant marines to make some money, as well as a spur of the moment road trip to Chicago with an ornery jazzman (played by John Goodman) and his assistant (played by Garrett Hedlund) to take one last stab at getting signed to a label.
As you can see, there's no real plot here other than watching Llewyn alienate people and miss opportunities. The film's washed out color palette may be reflective of Llewyn's mood and the grayness of winter, but it makes it feel like you're watching the film through dirty bathwater. And while it's impressive that the songs are played live in their entirety and Isaac has a great voice and finger-picking skills, it didn't make the movie significantly more interesting for me.
Personally, I would've liked to see this story taking place as Bob Dylan was upending the folk world, where the scene was being divided between purists like Llewyn and the new wave Dylan was creating and leading, which could also spur Llewyn to consider leaving the business. And by no means do I think this was a mistake by the Coens, or that they made anything less than the movie they wanted to make. But I find it hard to believe that if this exact same movie was released without the Coens' names on it that it would be getting a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which makes me think that critics are either trying too hard to like Inside Llewyn Davis or don't want to admit that they didn't like a movie made by two of America's best and most independent filmmakers. Maybe I just missed the point, and I know a lot of Coen brothers movies get better on repeat viewings, and I'll definitely give this movie another chance. But if you only plan to see Inside Llewyn Davis once, I'd advise you to lower your expectations.