The Watchers

The Watchers

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (UK Cert 15)

OK, confession time: I'm not the Coen brothers' biggest fan. I don't actively dislike them and I have enjoyed a number of their films (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo and True Grit) but I don't class myself as a fan of their work. Usually, I have to be in the mood for a Coen brothers film as sometimes their characters may strike me as quirky or idiosyncratic at one sitting, but downright bizarre or annoying at another. And let's not even go near their ill-advised and downright awful remake of The Ladykillers... But the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis seemed intriguing, so I thought I'd- in the immortal words of The Watchers- give it a punt. 

Inside Llewyn Davis is a bit of an odd film to categorise. It's probably best described as a character study, I suppose. Set in New York's Greenwich Village in 1961, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer, performing at the Gaslight Cafe and sofa-surfing with friends and acquaintances. What happens next is a series of vignettes rather than a fully-formed plot or story; in fact, Joel Coen has remarked that 'the film doesn't really have a plot'. Llewyn ends up having to carry a ginger cat around with him until he can reunite it with its owners. He's previously slept with his friend Jean (a fiery Carey Mulligan) and she's pregnant but it could be either Llewyn's or her boyfriend Jim's (a dimwatt Justin Timberlake). He sees his manager. He gets some session work. He rides to Chicago with an obnoxious jazz musician (John Goodman) and his laconic valet (Garrett Hedlund). And so the film goes on. 

Performance-wise, it's all good enough. Isaac makes for a compelling lead, even though Llewyn isn't that likeable as a character- he's abrasive, condescending, slightly big-headed and a little too sincere, baulking at his sister's suggestion that he could always go back to the merchant marines if the music doesn't work out. Sometimes, the Coen brother's films are comedies of embarrassment, piling misfortune on misfortune on some poor schmuck (for example, A Serious Man or Intolerable Cruelty), making it almost excruciating to watch them struggle against the mounting absurdities around them. There's an element of that to Inside Llewyn Davis- although, in this case, some of those circumstances are of Llewyn's own making.

Other performances are similarly good. John Goodman's character Roland Turner embodies my previous statement about Coen brothers' characters; this time I found him quirky, another time I might have found him too brash or too oddball. Carey Mulligan doesn't have a lot else to do except snarl and throw some great one-liners at Llewyn, but she does it well and her singing voice is quite lovely. The music, produced by Marcus Mumford and T Bone Burnett, is- as you would expect- excellent; there are a few stand-out numbers such as 'Hang Me, Oh Hang Me' and 'If I Had Wings'. Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography is particularly good and overall it's a well-made piece, but I didn't love it and I'm finding it difficult to articulate why. 

Perhaps it's the lack of a clear-cut story? Maybe the script is a little too obtuse, a little too vague (although naming the Gorfiens' cat Ulysses is a none-too-subtle tip of the wink). Maybe it's the fact that the central character is actually a bit of a jerk. During one scene, Llewyn's manager mentions another character- a singing soldier called Troy Nelson (Stark Sands)- and predicts he'll be big because 'People connect to him' (unlike Llewyn). The film also frustratingly leaves the character hanging.

So, in summary, certainly no Ladykillers but far from being a Fargo

Rating: 3.5 out of 5


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