(page 2 of 2)
This level of realism allows the brothers to unleash their dark, absurdist humor without pushing the whole thing over the edge. In one scene, Llewyn goes to return a cat belonging to the Gorfeins, an Upper West Side academic couple who let him crash at their place from time to time. After Llewyn makes a scene by refusing to play a song, Mrs. Gorfein starts screaming, in front of an oddball cast of dinner guests, about the animal’s missing scrotum. Later, in the movie’s most nightmarish segment, Llewyn gets an overnight ride to Chicago with an unsociable James Dean-esque poet (Garrett Hedlund) and an obese, cane-wielding junkie (John Goodman), who nearly overdoses in the bathroom of a restaurant that looks more like a surgery than a lunch room.
Llewyn isn’t Van Ronk exactly — as Isaac has pointed out in interviews, Van Ronk was big and loud and gregarious, whereas Llewyn is withdrawn and hostile — but he shares Van Ronk’s disdain for commercial music. Like Van Ronk, he misses out on the chance to join Peter, Paul and Mary, whose fictional stand-ins are Jim Berkey (played with delicious appropriateness by Justin Timberlake), Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan) and a fresh-faced soldier named Troy Nelson (Stark Sands). Instead, Llewyn spends the movie floating from couch to couch in a brown corduroy jacket and woolen scarf — you have to wonder about his hygiene — carting his guitar and a box of unsold records through the streets.
Llewyn’s physical hardship is about more than just poverty; it’s about the sacrifices artists make for their art, and whether they’re actually worth it. Here, “Inside Llewyn Davis” distinguishes itself from other Coen brothers movies by grappling seriously with the question of taste. Llewyn has strong opinions about his peers, and Isaac is at his funniest and best when making fun of the panderers and poseurs flooding the folk music scene. When Nelson performs at the Gaslight, Llewyn asks, deadpan, “Does he have a higher function?” When a barbershop quartet does a soulless rendition of “The Auld Triangle,” he expresses admiration for their sweaters. But if everyone thinks that harmonious singers with matching outfits are the ones worth listening to, how long can Llewyn believe in his own vision before calling it quits?
Llewyn may not have commercial appeal, but the Coens want us to know that he does have something to offer. Unlike characters such as Barton Fink, a playwright who is lampooned as deluded, pretentious and middlebrow, Llewyn is a real artist, and in his Jeff Buckley-esque performances — which were all done by Isaac himself — you see the well of feeling that he keeps so protected at other times. Though there are always tricks filmmakers can use to cue the audience when its supposed to be impressed, the Coens let the music speak for itself, or let it be filtered through the opinions of other characters. (When Llewyn auditions for Grossman, the manager says that he doesn’t hear a lot of money in it.) Llewyn Davis seems like the real deal.
But is talent enough? Based on history, it seems that Llewyn will benefit from the folk craze that swept through America in the early 1960s, despite his best attempts at self-sabotage. Of course, we don’t know that for sure. Maybe he’ll come up with a new set of paperwork and ship out to sea, just as the big money train comes in. And maybe he’ll wind up on hard times again, once the folk train pulls back out. But, to borrow a cliché from Bob Dylan, “they say the darkest hour is right before the dawn.” Leave it to the Coen brothers to make a movie that’s almost all darkness, and hardly any dawn.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @EzraG