Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Joel & Ethan Coen)

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It sounds so tantalizing: the crumpled up, bled-out life of an American folk singer in the early ’60s, as imagined by the Coen brothers. You immediately picture something odd and moving, beautifully stuck in time and imbued with a static melancholy. At least in part, Inside Llewyn Davis fulfills this promise. The muted, wintry palette of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel — on loan to the gang during one of their rare Roger Deakins-less projects — helps give the story a purgatorial sadness well befitting the life of its title character, whose life has reached a bleak crossroads as we join him. We see a runaway cat, relationship dramas played out in cruelly terse sketch, an odyssey and a dead end or three all with the aching sense of real, gray, haunted futility. All this in a drenched New York firmly seen through one man’s eyes, welled up with private resentments.

However, the writer-directors cannot stop there — more than complicated, their Llewyn is a prick; more than moody, their flood of failed auditions, confrontations, loose ends and meetings with bitter cynics and earnest journeymen alike is mostly — overwhelmingly — a literal cycle of dread. (It ends at the beginning, nothing having changed.) It’s finally so rife with monochromatic bitterness that it feels like a cartoon; only when Llewyn Davis sings, when the screen seems to hold its breath for a few moments and us along with it, does he or the story seem to have the beating heart that would justify the gorgeous stuff constructed around him and the world of shit that he’s occupying. Oscar Isaac is a grandly unorthodox casting choice who does the role proud and, though Carey Mulligan is a satisfyingly brutal presence as a sniping ex-lover now as ever married to perpetually cheery novelty-dabbler Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake, who should probably let the acting thing go), he carries the film almost single-handedly.

Llewyn lingers a lot in loserdom after the death of his former singing partner, playing performances at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village, shilling desperately for extra income, getting his ass kicked for heckling and helping to create unwanted pregnancies. He drifts but it’s a compelling drift, even if his frequently erratic behavior balanced with the mile-long list of grievances affixed upon him by the world make for an oddly uninvolving, one-dimensional narrative. Generally movies that stack the decks this high against their protagonists want us to sympathize with them, but Llewyn’s air of constant unpleasantness makes it hard. Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man faced the same constant screenwriterly crises, but he was so much less jaded than this character. All the same, Llewyn’s emotional despondency is frequently, believably, beautifully our own. Then the Coens pull the rug from under us all with an exaggeratedly hellish drive to Chicago that derails the film’s narrative at the midpoint, sacrificing wholly its impeccable sense of place and strong grasp on a perpetually analyzed and longed-for period of music history. The trip is taken with a cruel, heroin-addicted jazz man played by John Goodman and at length the endless highway — resembling less a life-altering journey than a Planes, Trains and Automobiles variant — takes us to another guest star, F. Murray Abraham, who sits stonefaced as the mogul-ish talent spotter Bud Grossman while Llewyn stops time and reminds us why we came.

The meandering, shaggy-dog structure feels strongly like a weak attempt at the existential doom that has faced the end of most recent Coen brothers films, particularly A Serious Man, and moreover an excuse not to write Llewyn with any sort of shape or consistency. We spend the entire film with him — through some very uncomfortable spots, and some spots he makes uncomfortable — but don’t get much insight into him beyond a great singing voice and Isaac’s haunting eyes. A beating heart is suggested here and there, brought into focus by a helpless animal, a cruel reminder, a movie poster even, but the Coens are only sporadically interested; their Llewyn is really just another toy for their sandbox, which is bound to be a delight for some who can revel in analysis of their latest strange fable’s suggestions. For others, expecting a shot of humanity, the film can feel oddly superficial and empty — more hand-of-god stuff. There’s debate about a lot of backgrounded aspects of Inside Llewyn Davis — such as how much of its circular structure is literal, how long a span of time it documents, and such puzzle game stuff seems a cheap distraction in a film with such a sumptuous setting, so rife with possibility. It’s depressing that one of the most prominent cops to contextual reality in the Greenwich folk scene, and narrative purpose to boot, is a closing fake cameo by the back of Bob Dylan’s head that feels frighteningly like something Robert Zemeckis would have added.

Even more than the tendency toward broad cruelties, it’s a mystery why the Coens must always go for the cheap, condescending laugh in scene after scene after scene. It’s becoming increasingly unfashionable to call them out on their unveiled contempt for the characters they concoct, but it’s still bothersome and keeps this from being half as moving, witty or revealing as it might well have been with such a golden, on-the-cusp premise. There is, for instance, that desperate need to undercut any show of genuine emotion, as when Llewyn plays a song for his father who is suffering in a nursing home; that deeply affecting moment is swiftly followed with an easily telegraphed, Marvin-caliber incontinence joke. This is what Mark Kirkland once called a “kick-in-the-ass gag” to offset an emotional crescendo; basically, a sitcom tactic — it’s cowardly and soulless.

So is the deeply mean-spirited treatment of a kind, sterotypically liberal family called the Gorfeins who take in Llewyn at his most desperate moments throughout the film. (They’re also the owners of the cat he’s so bad at keeping indoors.) Llewyn’s treatment of them is one thing and not unfamiliar to anyone who has dealt with a troubled relative or friend, but the film’s callous view of their open-hearted nature is galling. Ethan Phillips plays Mitch as a cast-off caricature from A Mighty Wind — certainly not a character who belongs in this movie — and it’s with unmitigated cruelty that Lillian (Robin Bartlett) is broadly, contemptibly mocked for weeping after she is one of several characters viciously shouted down by Llewyn. One has to wonder what, in the filmmakers’ opinions, makes Llewyn a better man than Goodman’s addict Turner, whose constant bitter bon mots are a source of frustration for Llewyn and us. (Goodman is a great actor and he’s brilliant here, but did we need him playing another one-dimensional caricature for the Coens?) This all seems counterproductive in a movie that’s ostensibly supposed to be about people just slightly on the other side of reality.

At bottom, perhaps the problem is that this isn’t real, and that the Coens are all too resistant to make it so, too interested in their point-scoring about the grand uselessness of it all. But the more the film feels like a Coen project — especially during the Chicago road trip — the less inspired it is, as though in all their originality they have wandered up their own personal creek of obviousness. A straightforward piece of period storytelling might well bore these two; with a strong feel for the people being explored, it needn’t, but that would require that Joel and Ethan Coen demonstrate that they have a clue about actual humans. Look — if you’ve got half a brain, you just don’t reject a film that looks this beautiful and maintains a mood of stark melancholy so effectively. But if only that melancholy felt real, earned, justified, rather than just gleefully forced. Very early on, there’s a shot of cat gazing out of a subway window with pensive wonder — what’s more frustrating than the Coens not making the movie I wanted to see is that they made so many damn parts of it.

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