Recently Criterion, the prestige DVD makers, had one of their flash sales. Fifty percent off! Normally, I am able to resist such things, but I decided I would get one for my daughter (Bottle Rocket). However, while I was browsing the site, I came across a title that I knew I could not resist. Inside Llewyn Davis.
When the Coen Bros. film Inside Llewyn Davis was released in 2013 I was eager to see it. After all, we are talk about the Coen Bros., and the trailer for this remains one of the best I've ever seen. But when it came to the movie itself, while I did like it, I didn't love it. Something wasn't there.
What I didn't realize is that movie was slowly burrowing into my brain, taking up permanent residence, painting the walls and changing the furniture. I've thought about that movie a lot since that first viewing. I still do.
If you haven't seen it, Oscar Isaac stars at the titular Llewyn Davis, a folk singer living in 1961 New York. He's down on his luck and has been that way since his singing partner committed suicide. Now as a solo act, Llewyn can't seem to catch the break. As the movie unfolds over several days in his life, you see that part of that reason is because Llewyn can't get out of his own way.
He looks down at the newer acts performing at The Gaslight (the famous coffeehouse where many acts, including Bob Dylan, performed early in their careers). He thinks his quasi-friend Jim, (Justin Timberlake) is a no talent sellout. Jim also happens to be married to his ex, Jean (Carey Mulligan). He's willing to use his friendship with the affluent Gorfiens' to get a place to sleep when needed but thinks of them as pretentious bourgeoisie types.
When Jim gets Llewyn a gig playing with him on a novelty record (a hilariously goofy song called Please Mr. Kennedy) Llewyn doesn't want credit on it. Instead, he opts for a quick payday ($200 which he needs to pay for an abortion) only to later learn that the royalties he passed up on would have netted him far more money.
Really this movie and Llewyn himself can be summed up with his trip to Chicago. He has an idea that if can get himself in front of the right record producer, Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), that Grossman will see his musical genius. He will understand his depth, talent, and pain.
The trip Chicago is a cold, snowy, and fairly unpleasant ride, mostly inside a car with an antagonistic jazz musician (John Goodman) and his mostly silent beat poet driver (Garrett Hedlund).
After having to walk through freezing cold snow to finally reach Grossman, Llewyn has his opportunity. He plays and sings soulfully, seeming singing his heart out only to be shocked when Grossman complains that he's not commercial enough. "I don't see a lot of money here," Grossman says of Llewyn's performance. Even when in front of the producer he thought would get it, he finds himself as a misunderstood artist floating in a sea of desired mediocrity.
When it's over you don't get the impression that his immense talent is going to shine through. The cream will not rise to the top. Instead Llewyn's fate is unclear. He's still at best a struggling folk singer. You could easily imagine him tossing his guitar in the East River a few years later an getting a regular job, just getting more and more bitter as the sixties go on. I'm not even sure if I should be rooting for or even liking him (though I do).
So I wonder, is this how I see myself? Is this why this movie speaks to me in this way? I truly hope not, but it just might be the case. Llewyn is all a fairly horrible guy at times, taking out his anger and frustration at people who do not deserve it and behaving as selfishly as possible. I can't say that this is the same for me. The lousy things LLewyn does are things I would never do.
If nothing else the movie plays as list of increasingly poor decisions. What happens to him in this movie at times feels like karma. Yeah, he's talented, but he's also an asshole and that's why he can't get over. Any maybe in a way that's how I see myself. An asshole who has made increasingly poor decisions in this life. God, I hope not.