"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the story of one of those failures. In a typical Coen Brothers story (I think we should just invent a word for this, "Coenesque") the lead, Llewyn Davis, begins his journey as a starving homeless musician in the East Village of Manhattan, couch surfing amongst his friends that he has not yet alienated, and ultimately ends up exactly in the place, having gained absolutely nothing. Davis is the surviving half of a folk music duo with his late partner having leapt off the George Washington Bridge before the story even began. He plunders around 1961 New York and eventually Chicago for one final shot scoring some measure of success in the burgeoning folk music scene, and inevitably gets nowhere. Even worse, his attempts to quit the game are blocked by misfortune and bureaucracy. Then he's back, borrowing coaches and playing the same clubs, only with an empty pocket and several more opportunities lost forever.
This is also, of course, a Coen Brothers movie. There isn't a terrible deal of humor to be found in this movie, its hard to classify this even as a cosmic comedy as "A Serious Man" was*. Rather this is them at their most moody, with an air of depression holding over the entire movie, mirroring Llewyn's own fatigue and defeat. There's still a milieu of the occasionally wacky characters, ones who could only exist within a Coen Brothers movie, such as a pair of arguing half-deaf Jewish small-time record producers, and John Goodman playing a fat heroine-addicted Jazz player who sleeps for days. There's also a recurring symbol of a stray cat that Llewyn chases after throughout the entire movie, whose ultimate meaning is completely lost on me, if it even has one. Its such an obvious symbol but its meaning is so obscure (is Llewyn the cat? is it failure? is it hope? is it the success Llewyn will never have?) that it makes me wonder if its some kind of inner joke between Joel and Ethan. Ultimately though, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is one of the best movies you'll see in 2013... which is going to be difficult now, since its 2014.
On the outside, Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, is an asshole, a loser, a punk, and a bum. He has failed on every level, and steadily this constant defeat has turned him into an abrasive and anti-social person. But what makes the movie so sad is that unlike the last tragic hero I've reviewed on this blog, Kate Blanchett's Jasmine from "Blue Jasmine", Llewyn Davis isn't a bad person. If anything, he's apologetic to a fault, willing to accept all the terrible things that people think about him without protest. If anything, the failure of his music career isn't based on poor luck or lack of talent - Oscar Isaac turns out to be an amazing singer - its his own depression.
Everything about this movie points to Llewyn being an extremely depressed individual. During the course of the film he's given at least one major opportunity to restart his career, and he flatly rejects it. His reasons are never explained, perhaps he justifies it by claiming that success is some kind of "square" pretension, but his real reason is that he just doesn't want to try. His act is unmarketable as a solo, perhaps somebody more sophisticated and with more advanced ear could tell me why his singing is not adequate, but it sounds dazzling to me, but he refuses to become part of a group even when this might be the chance he needs. Worse, Davis has become so embittered that he seems unable to enjoy the music of any other act, listening on with contempt that might be jealousy and might just be a more serious issue. While an impossible friendly and somewhat dimwitted army private is getting signed in a few months, while Davis stares angrily on. When a friend of his, played by Justin Timberlake, writes a silly and wacky "protest" song, Davis cannot help but complain about the lyrics and think the song is terrible.
But still, once they actually begin playing, he becomes a different person. That protest song, "Please, Mr. Kennedy" is utterly stupid, but its really a hell of a lot of fun. Davis gets absorbed in the performance, singing is the only time he ever seems truly happy or energized. He'll let Carrey Mulligan** call him an "asshole" several thousand times in her 1961 tsundere ways, all without ever defending himself, but then when he's on stage, he's so full of life and power. Its incredible that this act never worked. Then again, actually this act did work, only it was played by a Jew who called himself "Dylan". This is Davis' final humiliation, all of his hopes and dreams coming true - for another man.
The musical interludes in this movie, as created by T-Bone Burnett, the musical director of the earlier Coen movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" are mesmerizing and brilliant. I know in today's movie world simple thrills are rarely appreciated. You could stop and smell the roses, but its hard to for a little flower to compete with a horde of two-hundred million dollar aliens in robot suits rampaging through America's monuments. But you could spend a billion dollars on special effects, and you still wouldn't be able to match the pure artistry that is just Oscar Isaac sitting in a dimly-lit club, playing a guitar and singing a folk song. All the moodiness and circular repetitive tragedy of "Inside Llewyn Davis" might be make this a tough sell for most audiences, but really, you have to see this movie for the music alone.
Everybody wants to be famous. But how many of us are willing to risk that failure to even try? Of that smaller subset, how many succeed? Not many. Llewyn Davis definitely failed. But the Coen Brothers made it, and they've been one of the most powerful directorial forces in modern movie making for decades. We need to cherish that.
* I originally hated "A Serious Man" when I first saw it some years ago, I think I've come to appreciate it more over the years. I believe I called it "nihilistic", which is not entirely accurate, its too easy of an answer. I would actually recommend that movie highly, not as entertainment, but as something of a philosophical horror movie.
** Oscar Isaac and Carrey Mulligan together, why, its a "Drive" reunion! Later there's a quiet, handsome character who drives a car in a cool suit, but he's not played by Ryan Gosling, and never beats anybody to death with a hammer.