Review: Inside Llewyn Davis
It's the cat. It ties the room together.
I'm talking about the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis. And by "room" I mean "movie." Without the cat, this film would feel structureless and almost entirely unlikeable. Its success as a plot device is a testament to the writing and directing powers of Joel and Ethan Coen.
The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, is a jerk and a moocher. He's knocked up his friend's wife (Carey Mulligan), he insults most of the people around him, he "does not suffer fools and likes to see fools suffer."* His longtime musical partner gone, he's trying to pursue a solo career and fumbles nearly every crucial decision, almost tragically. He would be wholly despicable were it not for two things, one of which is the way he treats that cat.
Llewyn feels responsible for the cat after it escapes from an apartment where he's staying, and that triggers the events in the movie. The storyline is not strong or obvious -- it's A Week In the Life of a Struggling Musician, and it sounds tedious on paper Llewyn sleeps on people's couches, sings for his supper, plays in a dingy nightclub with a folk-singing duo (Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), performs on a novelty record and even embarks on a road trip to Chicago, hoping to succeed with a major record producer/promoter. The typical overt narrative curve does not assert itself.
One point of Inside Llewyn Davis is that the main character's life doesn't follow a storybook structure, although the little knife-twist in the club near the end is traditionally cinematic. But it underscores the theme that it takes just a sliver of good fortune or bad luck, one smart or stupid decision, to make or break a professional musician.
The other attribute that keeps Llewyn from being unwatchably repellant is his music, which is the only beautiful thing about the movie. When he sings, everything else in the movie stops. It doesn't matter that nearly every human being in this movie is mean, clueless, fatuous or just unpleasant. It doesn't matter that no one else in the film can sing worth a damn -- although they do so quite entertainingly, thanks to a talented music team led by T-Bone Burnett.
Oscar Isaac impressively demonstrates that he's not only a convincing actor but a lyrical musician. The supporting cast succeeds in being largely unrecognizable, submerged in their own characters, with the exception of John Goodman -- but that works too. The Inside Llewyn Davis cast and crew are all top of their game, working with the Coens to create a fascinating experience that doesn't quite feel like a movie, that by all rights should be dull and dreary. Inside Llewyn Davis is a minor miracle, and one of the best films of the year.
Austin connections: Joel Coen attended grad school at The University of Texas at Austin, after which he and Ethan Coen shot Blood Simple in Austin. Austin-based actor/filmmaker Alex Karpovsky has a small role in this movie.
*Quote paraphrased from With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy by Florence King. If Llewyn Davis were a real-life musician, he might have been included in the book.