Inside Llewyn Davis (15)
DIRECTED BY: Joel and Ethan Coen
STARRING: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
The Coen brothers' exquisitely sad and funny new comedy is set in a world of music that somehow combines childlike innocence with an aged and exhausted acceptance of the world. It is a beguilingly studied period piece from America's early-60s Greenwich Village folk scene. Every frame looks like a classic album cover, or at the very least a great inner gatefold – these are screen images that look as if they should have lyrics and sleeve notes superimposed. This film was notably passed over for Oscar nominations. Perhaps there's something in its unfashionable melancholy that didn't hook the attention of Academy award voters. But it is as pungent and powerfully distinctive as a cup of hot black coffee.
Since its triumphant debut at last year's Cannes film festival, one scene has deservedly become famous, and it cuts right to the movie's heart. Moody, haughty, failing folk singer Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, is so desperate for money that he agrees to be session guitarist at the recording of a jokey novelty single called "Please Mr Kennedy" by a group called the John Glenn Singers. (Coen fans will savour the parallel with the recording scene from O Brother, Where Art Thou?) It's a goofy number about astronauts, and the hook is "I don't wanna go to outer space!" This song, so despised by Davis, is wildly catchy: it reeks of success in his personal world of failure. Davis's own music and his life are destined to remain at ground level while everyone else in America heads skyward. Whether he is afraid of the future is an open question. He certainly resents it.
Davis's Welsh first name gives him an echo of both Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas; he is comparable to the singer Phil Ochs, and Richard Williams has written hereabout Davis's resemblance to the unlucky pre-Dylan folk star Dave Van Ronk. Llewyn's only real friends are another folk-singing act, the clean-cut Jim and Jean, lovers who seem more like siblings, outstandingly played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan. Their relationship with him is complicated by unspoken tensions and resentment, and his uneasy membership of the emotional triangle with Jim and Jean could be a satirically fractured vision of the real-life wholesome folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
Davis was once part of a double-act whose album was poignantly entitled If I Had Wings; he is now a solo act, a career decision that also reveals a good deal about his prickly loneliness; his new album is entitled Inside Llewyn Davis, another title fraught with irony. Nothing in his gloomy music, or indeed his personality, allows us much access to what he is really like "inside". Davis is reluctant to make any of the commercial compromises that would build anything like a career, and so finds himself virtually homeless: living on people's couches, a borderline-poverty existence that embitters him and draws him ever closer to the dangerous, consolatory illusion that failure guarantees integrity. His life is like a road movie kept off the road, although he has one grisly trip to Chicago in the company of a smack-addicted jazz musician, uproariously played by John Goodman.
The key question is: is Davis any good? In another sort of film, his failure, his Eeyoreish personality, his emotional disgruntlements would all be temporary setbacks. Someone surely would discover him; someone would assent, awestruck, to his talent after listening to the music. But with almost sadistic pessimism, the Coens give him two separate private-audience scenes: one with a Chicago club manager, played by F Murray Abraham, and one with his elderly father, played by Stan Carp. In each case, there is not exactly a Hollywood ending, although hope is not definitively extinguished.
Poor Davis is caught at the wrong historical moment. Will the imminent arrival of Dylan mean his kind of music will finally get what it deserves? Or just consign him even more brutally to second place? His existing dilemma is one that is rarely discussed: when do artists cut their losses and abandon their careers? He has to cart around a boxful of unsold albums, and notes with grim blankness that his folk contemporary Al Cody (played by the excellent Adam Driver) has an exactly similar box. The cultural industry might lead you to assume that these albums are wonderfully precious and unique things, emblems of achievement: but from an unsuccessful insider's view, these unwanted consumer items represent an abyss of failure much deeper than the disappointments of normal life. Davis erupts with rage at his sister's suggestion that he quit music and return to the merchant navy: that, he says, is merely to "exist". She replies tartly: "Exist? Is that what we do outside of show business? It's not so bad." The awful truth is that "existing" is what people inside show business have to do as well. There is an intense sadness to this film, but glorious sweetness and tenderness, too.
THURSDAY 28 SEPTEMBER
Doors: 7.30pm Film 8pm
Beautiful, heartfelt and utterly enthralling.
Brilliantly written, terrifically acted, superbly designed and shot; it's a sweet, sad, funny masterpiece.
Wildly accomplished; moving and rich and funny and exhilarating in a way that leaves you prickling from toes to scalp.