“Llewyn is the cat”
Can I chalk my ambivalence to the Coen Brothers‘ newest film Inside Llewyn Davis up to knowing nothing about the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961? It is after all loosely inspired by the life of Dave Van Ronk, containing aspects of his autobiography The Mayor of MacDougal Street for authenticity. But how much should knowing the setting of a story impact the enjoyment of what’s unfolding in its space? Shouldn’t the success of what the Coens have accomplished live or die by my interest in the titular Davis’ (Oscar Isaac) journey? People seem happy to compare this to their similarly idiosyncratic A Serious Man, but the lead there (Larry Gopnik) was a likeable, endearingly pathetic schlub you rooted for. Davis on the other hand is a selfish, temperamental brat without a shred of sympathy.
The poster tagline should read “Karma’s a bitch” because that’s the mantra I heard once the beginning scene repeats to bookend the piece and let us know the eccentric week between was a lead-up to his inevitable fall. One half of a former Simon & Garfunkel type duo with legs to make it big, the death of his much beloved partner thrust him into a solo spotlight his talent and ego simply cannot sustain. Possessing a chip on his shoulder to make Atlas’ burden look like a pebble, Davis can barely scrape two pennies together yet is slighted when his inept manager offers the winter coat off his back. He couch surfs throughout the West Side, overstays his welcome everywhere, sleeps with his friend’s girl, and feels as though his music is God’s gift to humanity.
There’s probably a message about artistic integrity and a dying era of art—you see it bashing you over the head when a young Bob Dylan takes the stage in a visual metaphor of “The Times They Are a-Changin’”—but this character’s complete lack of humility and grace makes it hard to care. Isaac’s portrayal is pitch-perfect hipster unable to keep his opinion or annoyance at bay from escalating situations into a powder keg of misguided machismo, but to what end? The Coens have admitted they had no plot until adding the infamous cat to give Davis a reason for going where he does in search for the runaway feline. Does it represent his dreams disappearing? The loss of boyhood innocence and hope for a brighter future? Or is it just a curious cat that saw an open window?
Does any of it really matter? In my eye, Llewyn Davis is less the star of a film depicting his struggles as a musician in a genre everyone and his sister was appropriating in the 60s and more a MacGuffin for the Coens to wander through this not-so-distant past. The aesthetic is impeccable and the tone the epitome of these auteurs’ appeal, but they never gave me enough to penetrate that surface to let it become more than a coldly opaque document of ungratefulness and hubris. Heck, the only two likeable characters in the whole thing are a robotically pristine wannabe singer army man named Troy (Stark Sands) and the naïvely friendly Jim (Justin Timberlake). Unfortunately, the optimistic sheen they give life becomes mere punch line rather than an example of what Davis and the rest should strive towards.
And here is where I believe my ignorance to the era detracts from my enjoying Inside Llewyn Davis as more than art to admire and forget. Maybe this is exactly how 1961 Greenwich looked and felt; populated by cutthroats and fake Samaritans using each other for personal gain until they must move to the next sucker. Maybe the Coens have set up failure after failure for Davis to punish him as some sort of scapegoat Jesus meant to sacrifice everything to save the rest from his same fate. Maybe the futility of trying to make a name for himself is simply easier than becoming a worthwhile member of hardworking society with a family and future. We see it in his longing towards an Akron interstate exit providing an escape into domesticity too frightening to take.
At the end of the day he’s a sarcastic prick leaving pain, disappointment, and destruction in his wake as the bitingly matter-of-fact humor of those caught in his periphery fails to cut through his smug indifference and impenetrable self-absorption. Carey Mulligan’s Jean—significant other to Jim—brilliantly changes her tone each time she discovers she’s talking to Llewyn, hysterically wearing forced hate despite being as much to blame for her current predicament as he. John Goodman’s Roland Turner steals the show as a viciously mean jazzman for all intents and purposes providing a glimpse at the future Davis has to look forward to, cutting down everyone around him while expecting undivided attentions in return. And bar owner Pappi (Max Casella) joyously reaps the benefits of making everyone grovel for a chance to grace his stage.
It’s hard, though, to reconcile each actor performing these despicable monsters flawlessly (special notice to Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as the Gorfeins for simultaneously being the nicest characters involved and the most subversively manipulating) with a film that ultimately goes nowhere. As a snapshot it is magnificent in its subdued gray tones, catchy soundtrack of old school folk tunes, and comedic way to show how false and manufactured bankable “talent” truly is—see “Please Mr. Kennedy” as a not-so-subtle commentary. There is so much to like and appreciate, but I feel as though the Coens went too clinical and objective for me to enter it as more than a voyeur judging. Maybe they just wanted to show us how fame is never quite what it’s cracked up to be. If they had loftier goals, I sadly didn’t see them.
 Oscar Isaac in Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC
 Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake (left to right) in Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC
 John Goodman in Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Photo: Courtesy of CBS Films ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC