The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Inside Llewyn Davis

I'd say that Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen brothers' best films, but most of their films are one of their best films. The siblings, Joel and Ethan, routinely and consistently turn out brilliant work. What's even more impressive is that they do so in a wide variety of genres. This newest effort is essentially a musical, albeit one cloaked in a character study. It's got all the Coen quirk you'd expect, while also possessing an emotional maturity that we haven't fully seen from them before.

Set in Greenwich Village during 1961, Oscar Isaac (Sucker Punch) plays Llewyn Davis, a folk musician who was once part of a duo but is now trying to go it on his own. He's not having much luck. Llewyn seems to believe the old adage that one must suffer for one's art. Constantly broke and mooching off his friends, he passes up good opportunities, either due to carelessness or telling himself that he's somehow above them. Llewyn has also impregnated Jean (Carey Mulligan), another folk singer who performs with her boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake). Jean blames him for her situation and harbors great resentment. With his career going nowhere, Lleywn struggles to find himself as an artist. He ends up taking a session gig on a novelty record with Jim, then hitches a ride to Chicago with a sickly older man named Roland Turner (John Goodman), hoping to earn some cash. With everything that happens, personally and professionally, Llewyn faces an existential crisis. Part of the reason he is not succeeding is that he doesn't fully know who he is or what he stands for.

Inside Llewyn Davis has much of the offbeat humor the Coens are known for. From the character's unhelpfully crusty old agent, to the eccentric car trip with Roland Turner, to the wacky “Please Mr. Kennedy” record Llewyn gets roped into playing on, there are plenty of big laughs to be found. Some are overt jokes, others are more subtle, such as the way Jean repeatedly – and specifically - emphasizes the word “asshole” every time she tells Llewyn he is one. (Which is often.) These things, combined with inventive camerawork, clearly mark the film as a Coen brothers production.

What's different is that underneath the quirk is a serious examination of the nature of being an artist. Llewyn has a beautiful voice and knows how to play music, yet he still struggles to get by. This is because Llewyn Davis (the person) is a mess, and Llewyn Davis (the performer) is a reflection of him. He ambles around without a real game plan, while snickering at other, probably less talented acts who appear to have put some actual thought into their careers. His relationship with Jean, and what comes to the surface because of it, indicates a lack of connection to his own emotions. Misery and frustration are all he feels. By shutting off everything else, he fundamentally limits himself as an artist. In order to really get somewhere, Llewyn needs to get his life together, so that he has something worth singing about.

In a move both delightfully kooky and wonderfully wise, the film uses an orange tabby cat as a metaphor for responsibility. Early on, Llewyn is forced to look after the feline belonging to some friends on whose couch he is sleeping. That doesn't turn out so well, but he encounters two other, identical cats at key points in the story. He can't escape them, and their appearances serve to make him confront his own irresponsible ways. Perhaps this more than anything is the masterstroke of Inside Llewyn Davis. It suggests that there are omens in one's creative life that, if not heeded, will bring artistic despair. You need only look at the careers of big stars who have fallen in popularity to understand that truth.

Inside Llewyn Davis nicely balances the weightier thematic material with the funny stuff, and it throws in some truly good music to boot. (Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford helped on that front.) The soft-focus, muted color cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel (Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince) creates a vibrant atmosphere that perfectly encapsulates Llewyn's world. As great as these things are, the greatest pleasure in Inside Llewyn Davis is the brilliant, star-making turn from Oscar Isaac, who skillfully shows every ounce of pain and self-loathing the character has inside. The Coens have devised a marvelously funny, truthful story of artistry, and Isaac brings it to life with the kind of passionate showmanship Llewyn Davis himself sorely lacks.

( out of four)

Inside Llewyn Davis is rated R for language including some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.

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