Stuck Inside of Greenwich Village With the Coen Brothers Blues Again

'Inside Llewyn Davis' Conjures Up Early 1960s Folk Scene

Two Hep Cats: Oscar Isaac plays the title character in the Coen Brothers’ folk music pastiche, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis.’
CBS Films
Two Hep Cats: Oscar Isaac plays the title character in the Coen Brothers’ folk music pastiche, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis.’

By Ezra Glinter

Published December 05, 2013, issue of December 13, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(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Van Ronk exactly — as Isaac has pointed out in interviews, Van Ronk was big and loud and gregarious, whereas Llewyn is withdrawn and hostile — but he shares Van Ronk’s disdain for commercial music.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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.