My love for the Cohen brothers is profound. They may have had some misses over the years, but when they hit the mark the sky’s the limit. Their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis, a comedy drama about a struggling folk singer, is not a miss, but it’s not quite a spectacular hit either. It features some of that trademark Cohens quirky humour that I love and plenty of wonderful music, but the story itself is not quite engrossing enough to keep me drawn in for the entire 105-minute running time.
Set in New York in the 1960s, Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is not doing too well. We can tell from the opening scenes that he’s a pretty good signer, but his solo album, which shares the same name as the film, isn’t selling, and he is forced to sleep on the couch of a friend’s family. He’s not a horrible guy but he’s not exactly likable either and often comes across as a bit of a dick who’s not afraid to speak his mind regardless of how offensive his words may be.
It’s a bit of a meandering film with no real direction, one that follows Davis around for a week as he tries to land gigs and score performances to earn himself some dough. We see him looking after a ginger cat, get hassled by his casual girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) and taking a road trip with some interesting people. His personal life is in a complete mess and his relationships are all over the place, and his existence is more or less one misadventure after another, and the majority of them are his fault. It’s not exactly a riveting plot, and at times I wondered what the heck it was trying to say, or whether it was trying to say anything at all.
And no, it’s not one of those poignant dramas either. There’s no touching message about life or underlying beauty. It’s just Davis being who he is, for better or worse, battling to survive in a tough industry where artists often find themselves making compromises to make ends meet. I actually prefer that, though I wish there was more of a focus and a proper story to tell.
The strength of the film lies in the offbeat comedy that the Coens are masters of, and much of it comes from the sharp conversations between Davis and the people in his life. There are plenty of witty and dumbfounding lines that elicited chuckles from me throughout the movie, though not many huge belly laughs like the ones I got in Fargo.
I had never heard of Oscar Isaac before but he’s terrific in this — both his acting and his singing. And I had no idea that there were so many big names in supporting roles, from the aforementioned Carey Mulligan to Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F Murray Abraham, Max Casella (Doogie Howser’s buddy!) and Girls‘ Adam Driver. All of them stand out in their own way, especially Mulligan, whom I didn’t think much of before but was thoroughly impressed with here as the straight-shooting and ball-busting ex. She was very funny.
In the end, I don’t really know what to think of Inside Llewyn Davis. I enjoyed this finely crafted film and found it highly amusing, no doubt, and I also surprisingly liked the music a lot. But at the same I was a little disappointed with it and wished I could have liked it more. It’s a strange experience that will probably polarize viewers, but if push comes to shove I would probably still recommend it, especially to people who enjoy a good Coen brothers project.
3.5 stars out of 5