Premise: (from IMDB) A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
About: It’s the latest Coen Brothers film! This one stars newcomer Oscar Isaac, along with Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman. The film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival (which, historically, is a sign that the movie will be slow, boring, and pointless – yippee!). When asked about the plot, Joel Cohen joked that it didn’t have one. I’m not sure he realized how true that answer was.
Writers: Joel and Ethan Cohen
Details: 105 minutes long
Well this movie sure gives “Save the Cat” a whole new meaning (or should I say, meowning). No really, I’m just kittying. That joke was purrrrr-fect.
I understand, Critics of America, that the Coen Kool-Aid is usually double-packed with extra pink sugar and therefore never fails.
The Coens are great filmmakers. I’m not going to argue with you there. And they’ve won two screenwriting Oscars. So they know how to write. Not going to argue with you there.
But being great at something should never give one free reign to write a script with…
a) Boring subject matter.
b) An abysmal unlikable protagonist.
c) No story.
d) Boring music (although I guess the music itself isn’t actually in the script).
I would not rule out the possibility that the Coens are laughing at everyone who gave this movie high marks. There’s a chance (albeit small) that they made this movie just to fuck with you. Just to see how pointless they could make a film and still get you to declare it great.
Inside Llewyn Davis is like the movie Once, but without a story, likable characters, or good music. It’s just not a good movie. Okay, it has a few interesting performances. I’ll give it that. But as a movie, it’s a disaster.
The movie follows our “hero,” Llewyn Davis, who’s a really good folk singer in the early 60s. The problem is, Llewyn is a complete loser. The guy doesn’t even have a home! He just couch surfs. His entire life! Can you imagine not having a place to live? Having to call someone every few days to see if you can sleep on their couch?
Anyway, Llewyn is nearing that “point of no return” in an artist’s life where he either has to commit to being an artist forever or move on to a “normal” life. Complicating matters is that Llewyn doesn’t exactly sing the most commercial music. He sings folk. Which is even less popular than jazz, which is also not very popular.
On his last leg (and last dollar), Llewyn spends a few days in the city trying to make ends meet. As if this guy’s miserable angry existence isn’t enough to make you dislike him, it turns out he’s also impregnated one of his best friends’ girlfriends! So what does Llewyn do? Looks for a gig so he can pay for the abortion! No, I’m serious! This is the only time this guy shows any initiative.
After taking care of that, the movie looks to have nothing more pushing it along. It’s like the people mover at the airport if all of a sudden, it just stopped. So where to go next? Why not Chicago! Of course. Makes sense. Yeah, so Llewyn decides to hop in a car with two artists and take an impromptu trip to Chicago. It’s not really clear why he’s doing this but the smart money is on meeting a club owner there who may be able to get him a job.
That doesn’t go well (the guy tells us what we already know – Llewyn’s music will never make any money). So Llewyn goes back to New York, where he finally gives up on music. He gets in a few more tiffs with all the friends he’s bummed couches off of, until the “big” finale where he gets beat up by an old folk singer’s husband for cursing her off the stage. The End.
I get the feeling that the Coens, if they’re even aware of sites like this, laugh at them. I don’t think they believe that there’s any reason to analyze a piece of art. You just follow your gut, make what you feel, and whatever comes of it, comes of it. It’s likely why they look so damn bored whenever they win an Oscar.
And there’s something to be said for that approach. It serves you well when you’re a genius. It doesn’t do jack daniels to those of us who aren’t, however. The rest of the world must construct an approach to storytelling that allows us to write a good story. But even if that wasn’t the case, without form or structure, you run the risk of dolling out just as many total pieces of shit as you do total pieces of genius. It’s the law of averages. And unfortunately, Inside Llweyn Davis from the Coens lies squarely in the disaster heap.
First of all, there’s no story here. I mean, there is for awhile. Our main character’s goal is to “make it.” So that drives him a little, gives him a reason to get up in the morning. Which is good. At least we have a character who’s active. But eventually, Llewyn is revealed to be so self-destructive, we know he’s never going to achieve anything. This is going to be one of those depressing movies with a depressing ending. And when that happens, we tune out.
But where this story really lost itself was when Llewyn heads off to Chicago. I mean we don’t even know where we’re going anymore. Vaguely, Llewyn’s trying to get his papers in order so he can join the Navy (or something like it – that was unclear). But that seems to be secondary to simply showing Llewyn be miserable. All. The. Time.
The Coens even have the audacity to write a scene where Llewyn goes to see his father, who lives in the saddest living assistance facility in the world and has dementia, play a really sad song for him, then watch his dad shit himself. Ooh, I’m sure the Coen critic fans were saying, “It’s so raw and real! It mirrors life!” No, it’s sad, it’s depressing, and it’s pretentious.
Don’t even get me started on our unlikable protag, who takes unlikable to a whole new level. I mean this guy doesn’t work hard enough at his dream, he impregnates his friend’s girlfriends, he then ONLY WORKS HARD to get money so he can pay for her abortion, he’s selfish, he complains all the time, he’s not thankful when people let him stay at their place. Look, I think the unlikable protag is a daring choice and it needs to be used sometimes. But there has to be a measure of balance. If your main character is going to be an unlikable loser, the rest of your movie has to have some redeeming qualities, something to offset that. But there’s nothing in this movie that does. It’s just a sad depressing movie with a pointless wandering plot.
There are really only two standout performances in the movie: John Goodman and Orange Cat. I mean this cat – he was the only character I actually cared about! When he was lost, I wanted him to be found. When Llewyn is carrying him around, I was worried he was going to slip away. When he ran away, I desperately wondered how Llweyn was going to explain it to his owners.
And I’m sorry, but in a “real” movie, the character you care most about shouldn’t be a cat. Which leads us to John Goodman. I gotta give it to the guy, his heroin-addicted crippled always-sleepy ranting jazz musician stole the show. But a lot of that is because there was nothing to steal from. It’s hard not to be the prettiest girl in the room when you’re going up against a bunch of inbreeds.
However, if you were to make an argument about this film’s merits, it would come back to, as it always does in a Coens film, the characterization. These guys do things with their characters that nobody else does. I mean they even made Carey Mulligan, a girl who’s made a living out of being boring, into a semi-interesting character. John Goodman’s silent mysterious driver kept us guessing. The weirdo actor from Girls was good in his few moments onscreen as a goofy clueless singer. But all these performances fell on deaf ears because there wasn’t a story to hold them up.
The Coens are known for always putting a bag of money in their scripts. Everyone, then, follows the money. And that usually makes things fun. At the very least, it gives the story a plot. But there’s no money here. Just a bunch of sad people living miserable existences. Yeah, the music was pretty. But it was pretty in that boring way, the kind of music you nod to your girlfriend about afterwards and say, “That was pretty good.” But no fucking way do you ever want to hear it again.
I know I get criticized for not being open enough about indie film. But trust me. Unless you’re 60+ years old and have a hard-on for folk music, this movie is going to bore you to tears. Save your moolah. This is a freshly mixed glass of disaster sauce.
[x] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Parallel problems. Parallel problems are problems that are happening to your character at the same time as they’re dealing with a current scene-related problem. If you use them correctly, they create a lot of tension, since the audience will be worrying wherever your character goes. Here, it’s the cat. Llewyn loses his friend’s cat, which they don’t know about because they weren’t home. So now Llewyn is meeting up with other characters, dealing with other problems, and all we can think about is, “Is he going to be able to find the cat in time?” You can use MULTIPLE parallel problems to add even more tension to your main character’s plight.