Llewyn Davis is a folk singer, stumbling from sofa to sofa in early 1960s New York. He used to be part of a semi-successful duo, but for reasons explained in the movie the pair are no longer together, and everything Llewyn owns he carries with him and dumps at the next person willing to put him up for the night. He isn’t really going anywhere in life other than downwards, so he plans to head to Chicago in search of a record deal. Also, there’s an accidental pregnancy, and a cat.
I’m a big fan of The Big Lebowski. It’s the film that got me into loving the Coen brothers, and it remains my second favourite of their films, behind Fargo. I love Lebowski because of many reasons – the cast, the dialogue, the humour – now of which are the film’s meandering plot that sees our lead ricocheting from one unlikely scenario to the next without having either any input into it, or it having any effect on his overall existence. Unfortunately this is the key component that the Coens have lifted from that film into this. The reason it worked in Lebowski was partially down to the character we were following being not only likeable, but interesting in a bizarre how-will-he-react-to-this kind of way. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), however, is frankly a bit of a dick. More than that, actually, he’s an arsehole. His sense of self importance and complete lack of gratitude make being around him almost unpleasant, and the fact that he seems to have so many acquaintances willing to constantly help him out without there ever being even the slightest chance of the favour being returned is mind boggling and a little infuriating.
However, this is a Coen brothers movie, and a relatively critically acclaimed one at that, so I did my best to not just like it, but love it. I was willing this to break into my favourite movies of this year (it was released in the UK in January), and I’ll be honest in saying that it’s got a chance. Maybe there’s a directorial bias that’s been applied, or at least one that will make me see the film at least one more time before cementing any opinion in my mind, for you see once I got over my initial – and persisting – dislike of the lead character, I found there was a lot else to like about the film, the most obvious of which is the soundtrack. I’ve recently gotten into folk music in a very minor way, in that I’ve bought a couple of Mumford & Sons albums, and I’ll be adding to my folk library very shortly when I purchase the soundtrack to this movie. There’s a real diversity of song styles throughout, but the standout comes from what may be my favourite scene in the film, which is the recording of a kind of novelty song – the least folk-like from the whole soundtrack – between Isaac’s Davis, Justin Timberlake’s Jim and Adam Driver’s Al Cody. What I liked best about the scene was the more comedic tone, how commercially catchy the song was whilst being ridiculous, courtesy of Cody’s input, and the way in which they assembled the song before hand.
Speaking of Timberlake and Driver, the supporting cast here were mostly welcome additions to detract from Llewyn himself, however they all seem to be extremes to either the nice or nasty direction from Llewyn. Jim and Al are both skewed very much towards the positive, as is Stark Sands’ Troy, a seemingly simply fellow singer home from the army, who reminded me a lot of Tim Blake Nelson in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), a couple who find themselves inflicted with Llewyn more often than most. On the opposite end of the spectrum, and equally as arduous to endure as Llewyn, is Jim’s partner Jean (Carey Mulligan), a bitter woman with understandable – if a little biased – hatred towards Llewyn, and Roland Turner (John Goodman), an older, disabled, eternally rambling or unconscious jazz singer with whom Llewyn makes the journey to Chicago. Everyone played their characters well, but because there were so many of them I never felt we had enough screen time with any. They, like the various sub-plot threads, drifted in and out as required, in much the same way as they probably did in Llewyn’s mind. He’s a selfish character, so can only really pay attention to what’s directly in his vicinity. If you move more than a few metres away, he’ll soon forget about you and go on about his life.
Were this not a Coen brothers movie, I’d probably just dismiss it outright as another character study, week-in-the-life-of that I just didn’t get, but because Joel and Ethan are behind it I find myself in need of giving it another go. It wasn’t until my second viewing of A Serious Man and Barton Fink that I began to appreciate them, and many of their other films have only improved the more I’ve watched them – No Country For Old Men springs to mind, which in my eyes started out as a great movie and is now a stone cold classic that on some days would take that number three film amongst the Coen’s oeuvre (I’m a big Hudsucker Proxy fan, and love Miller’s Crossing too). As such, you should probably take this review with a pinch of salt, because I haven’t really got my own opinions settled yet.
Choose film 7/10