Monday 23 December 2013

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The Coen Brothers paytribute to early 60s NYC folk scene.

*NOTE* If you come across this review of the film, don't bother reading it. Read this revised review HERE

Desperately hoping to hit it big, a broke, down-on-his-luck, couch-surfing Greenwich Village folk singer during the early 60s embarks upon a very strange and telling odyssey to Chicago. He also loses a cat.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) *****
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, Adam Driver, Max Casella, F. Murray Abraham

Review By Greg Klymkiw

First of all, let's get the most important thing about Inside Llewyn Davis out of the way. It's so key to genuine film lovers the world over, that it seems ludicrous not to mention it right off the bat.

Albert "Al" Milgrom is the immortal nonagenarian gentleman scholar and godfather of cinema in the Coen Brothers' hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota and they've paid a lovely tribute to one of the most beloved and important champions of film as art in America by having Adam Driver play a folk singer with the surname of Milgrom, though the character has already chosen a far more goyische stage name Al Cody. My jaw dropped when this near-hidden tidbit is revealed. Anyone who knows or loves The Great Man of Minneapolis Movie Mania will, no doubt, be infused with a warmth for the Brothers remembering and honouring a guy whose inspired more cineastes per capita than anyone in the U.S. of A. Milgrom has long been a fixture on the international film festival circuits and in Toronto during TIFF, he can often be seen furiously riding between his preferred digs at the Downtown YMCA and various screening venues on a rented bicycle. Earlier this year, he nearly killed himself whilst taking a horrific tumble during the Berlinale and only this past summer was returned from Germany to his beloved Minneapolis to continue his recovery. Way to go, Al.

So, on to the matter at hand. This new film from Joel and Ethan Coen is one of the more genuinely entertaining movies of the year, in spite of a few oddities that somehow keep it from achieving a kind of greatness one wants it to have. Though the movie as a whole, never quite gets there, it certainly has individual moments of greatness and one extended sequence in the middle of the film that is as great as anything the Brothers have set to celluloid.

Shot in a gorgeous semi-monochrome by Bruno Delbonnel, vaguely inspired by the real-life late folk singer Dave Van Ronk and his posthumous biography "The Mayor of MacDougal Street" and replete with terrific musical numbers (mostly shot "live") created in collaboration with the great T-Bone Burnett, we're plunged into the world of Greenwich Village folksingers in that period just prior to Bob Dylan arriving on the scene and taking the world by storm.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Davis) is a serious-minded folksinger (and ultimately nothing like the gruff Van Ronk) whose had to go solo since his partner in a performing duo took a dive off the (un-romantic, though oddly apt) George Washington Bridge and ended his already short life far too soon. Llewyn is broke and he hardly makes anything resembling a living as a folksinger. He hails from a working class background and is encouraged by his older sister to go back into the merchant navy. Llewyn will have none of this, though, and he continues to play whatever gigs he gets, surfs from couch to couch and borrows money left, right and centre.

He finds out his old girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant. Llewyn dallied with her behind the back of her current paramour Jim (Justin Timberlake) and now she wants an abortion since she's mortified that the baby growing in her belly might belong to the layabout itinerant she's come to despise.

Llewyn also loses a cat belonging to a middle-aged academic Jewish couple who kindly provide him with occasional meals and a couch. The search for this cat becomes easily as obsessive as his search for fame. In fact, Llewyn's tale becomes anchored when he hitches a ride with two musicians (John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund) to Chicago so he can audition with a famed folk impresario (F. Murray Abraham, who proves again what a great actor he is and how utterly misused he's been in so many films unworthy of his talents). It's this odyssey, involving a variety of bizarre conversations, strange goings-on and several sightings of the cat he's lost that, to date, is not only on a par with the very best work created by the Brothers, but serves as the true core of the film and as such, occasionally feels like a film unto itself.

The almost-everything-before-and-after to this sequence are, for me, the problematic aspects of Inside Llewyn Davis. The title character seems like a major league loser. He's an almost offensively self-absorbed asshole who treats women like shit, using them as receptacles for his imperfect spunk, a bitter, bullying dipsomaniac who hurls invectives at those who can't possibly defend themselves against the force of his bile, an egomaniacal asshole who fucks up every opportunity to actually make a living as a musician in pursuit of a fame he might not even deserve and as such, is continually broke and in debt because of his pathetic "I will not sell out, attitude".

Nothing goes right for this loser and it's all his own fault.

God knows, I'm the last person in the world to crap on a film's character for being an asshole. So much of the 70s cinema I love is bulging with such characters, but their stakes seem so much higher than Llewyn's, the darkness they're drawn to so much more flamboyantly seedy (think James Toback's central characters in Fingers and The Gambler), that I find it borderline intolerable that the Coen Boys are rubbing my nose in the shit of someone so dull, pretentious and inconsequential.

A loser folk singer? I'm supposed to not only give a shit, but derive something resembling entertainment value and food for both my heart and mind? Uh, I don't think so.

But here's the rub - I can't get Inside Llewyn Davis out of my head. The odyssey sequence I love would have no resonance without everything I detest about the film. The few moments of humanity in the film that stick out, almost like sore thumbs, wouldn't have the power they do. (A scene between Llewyn and his dementia-riddled father is not only worthy of the Coens' best work, but feels like a scene that could have been directed by John Ford if he'd been from their generation.)

Maybe, just maybe, this is a film that's really about the universal greatness inherent in those who've left their alternately rich and repressive hometowns, not unlike Bob Dylan, the Jew from Dinkytown in the land of Swedish milkmaids and stalwart car salesmen and Holiday Inn buffets, who appears briefly at the end of the movie, signalling the beginning of his fame and the eventual acceptance of folk music in the larger world. Maybe it's about having to know repression, real repression, to create great work that will resonate far beyond an insular community in a big city - one that Llewyn embraces more than he thinks he does. Maybe it's needing to understand - truly understand - what's both insular and heavenly in the same breath, hidden amongst those big open midwestern skies that look down upon the rolling prairies - a land that needed to be tilled by those without imagination, so that those with imagination could take what nurturing they needed before spilling out into the wider world.

Maybe, just maybe, Llewyn's illegitimate child who doesn't even know he exists will have the right stuff. The kid is, after all, being raised in the middle of BuckeyeFuck, Ohio.

Maybe, just maybe, Inside Llewyn Davis is the closest we'll come in this day and age to cinematically capturing the final words of Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio wherein he writes:
"The young man’s mind was carried away by his growing passion for dreams. One looking at him would not have thought him particularly sharp. With the recollection of little things occupying his mind he closed his eyes and leaned back in the car seat. He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out of the car window the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood."
I suspect this is a great film and for all my aforementioned kvetching I can hardly wait to see it again.

And again. And yet, again.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is currently in theatrical release via Mongrel Media.