Not a good Coen Brothers movie. The buzz for this film is its depiction of the folk scene in Greenwich Village from the early 60’s. And charitably, one could make the case that it explores the road not taken by the Don Draper in Mad Men. And perhaps if Mad Men had not already mined this territory so much better, Inside Llewyen Davis would feel more compelling.
Instead what we get is a character study of an unsympathetic guy who really could be situated in any era. To paraphrase Paul Simon, Llewyen is empty and aching and not really sure why. And more than that, he doesn’t seem to really care himself.
Brothers Coen give to little back story, to create much interest in the goings on here. The folk singers played by Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, and Stark Sands are so cornball they could have been crashed an early audition of Hee Haw had there been one.
The angst of Llewyen and Jean Berkey played by Carrie Mulligan, who might be pregnant with his child, seems designed to give some pathos, the only problem being in the words of Joy Behar, “Who cares?” Jean is uber loose even by standards of the day. It’s not clear what she sees in husband Jim played by Justin Timberlake. She claims she just wants marital contentment in suburbia which is hysterically bad writing. As if suburbia were some kind of Folk Singer Heaven. Did the writers forget to tell the audience what they know about this character to make such a thought plausible or did they just go suddenly Aspberger’s.
This a movie that seems intent on playing it small. It will never be accused of trying to make a statement, which is funny given that the era was nothing if not not making pronouncements on everything.
Also without providing any psychological understanding about why Llewyen is so perenially cranky, the audience doesn’t know whether to feel for tragedy or off beat humor. So dry a film. Was this a reject an early Wes Anderson script?
The one chance to gain understanding of Llewyen’s personality comes when Llelyen meets his father in a nursing home. Llewyen warbles a sentimental favorite song of his father who doesn’t acknowledge the gesture, likely because he is demented. Llewyen takes his father’s dementia personally, but without much sense of loss, maybe cause he doesn’t expect anything more. That’s it. That’s all we get to see.
Another small moment. Driving back to New York from Chicago after a failed try to impress a music impresario, Llewyen sees a highway turn off for Akron, the town where he has a 2 year old child from a casual relationship that he didn’t know existed because he thought the pregnancy ended in abortion. Ooh what’s he go to do? will he turn and search for the child ? or will he keep going? This is what passes for drama in this flick.
Look, the Coen Brothers never intended to make 300 and ONE or whatever the sequel to 300 is being called. And there is much to be said about celebrating the epiphanies and struggles with which, what Sly Stone calls “everyday people,” contend. But if you are going to go small, you have to make us care. You have to take us someplace emotionally where we might feel or incorporate something worthwhile.
Otherwise writers are inflicting the trauma on the audience that perhaps Llewyen experienced in childhood and is still reeling from in this story. In psychology we call this Turning Passive into Active. Or we do to others in our relationships what was done to us growing up by our parents. If this were Shakespeare, we would contemplate the nuance. But here, I just couldn’t be motivated to give a ….
(see this blog’s title for the punchline and in so doing get some idea of the cheap parlor trick used by Joel and Ethan Coen which they borrowed from Pulp Fiction, where the film doubles back at its end to what was already depicted in the beginning only this time the audience knows just the slightest bit more. )
And they still don’t care.
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