For many film aficionados, a Coen Brothers film is an event.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is a non event.
The film, set during a cold snowy winter in 1961, mainly in New York City's Greenwich Village nascent folk music scene, follows the career and personal train wreck that is the life of a guitar-strumming, songwriting, folksinger, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac).
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is more of a long-form music video. The soundtrack music was produced by the highly-regarded T-Bone Burnette, who worked previously with the Coens, notably on "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000). Bits of story are strung together between the songs, many of them quite good, including "If I Had Wings," admirably sung by Isaac as Davis.
In between the songs, we meet Davis's on-again, off-again girlfriend, Jean (Carey Mulligan, seethingly fine) with whom he faces a crisis of character.
We sit in with Davis during a recording studio session led by fellow folksinger, Jim (Justin Timberlake at his bearded and sweater best) for a novelty song, "Please, Mr. Kennedy."
There's a road trip in a four-door 1961 Buick LeSabre to a club in Chicago with a particularly nasty driver, Johnny (Garrett Hedlund) and a jazz bo, Roland (a barely-awake, apparently intentionally so, John Goodman but who can tell?), who rails against three-chord folk music.
Davis auditions for the Chicago club owner (a particularly enigmatic F. Murray Abraham).
All the while, there's a tabby cat who leads Davis on a merry chase. Davis seems to have more compassion for and relate better to the cat than he does with most of his friends and acquaintances.
The cat belongs to a professor friend and his wife, Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), with whom Davis has crashed (Davis is homeless). During a dinner in their apartment, we get to see Davis's nasty side, as if we needed convincing. As a couch surfer, Davis wipes out.
Davis plays mordant, depressing, solipsistic, nihilistic did I say depressing? folksongs, including one gem, "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me." This is supposed to be ironic and unintentionally humorous. It isn't. Davis's smug attitude, contemptuous response to the audience's reception and emotionless face gives the viewer little to identify with. It doesn't help that the film has few likeable characters.
As Llewyn Davis, Oscar Isaac doesn't give us much to work with. His go-to look is perpetual perplexity. His acting range runs the gamut from A to B.
Toward the film's conclusion, when Davis leaves a club's stage, the next guitar-playing singer is none other than an actor portraying a boyish, curly-haired Bob Dylan. That's Dylan on the soundtrack singing "Farewell." "The Times They Are A-Changin,'" indeed.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is loosely based on the Dave Van Ronk autobiography, for which writers-directors Joel and Ethan Coen bought the rights. Van Ronk was a fixture on the Greenwich Village 1960's folk scene who never achieved the folk adulation and pop-rock icon status of Dylan. Few, if any, have.
The film is meticulous in its art direction, costumes, and seems to faithfully capture the apartments, music club and bar-room interiors and exteriors of the early 1960s. It is filmed in dreary muted brown tones, with lots of close-ups and lengthy, often silent, ruminative takes of Davis.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is minor Coens. It lacks the chutzpah of "Raising Arizona" (1987), the humor of "The Big Lebowski" (1998) and the dire intensity of "Fargo" (1996, original screenplay Oscar winner) and the Oscar-winning "No Country For Old Men" (2007) (picture, director, adapted screenplay Oscars).
The often haughty, slack-jawed cynicism of the Coen Brothers doesn't serve the material from a charming era still cloaked in nostalgic awe. The Coens seem to be saying that the 1960's folk scene was a joke at best, a ruse at worst.
There's not much "Inside Llewyn Davis."
It's not that you shouldn't see "Inside Llewyn Davis." Just be prepared to be underwhelmed.
"Inside Llewyn Davis," MPAA Rated R (Restricted. Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian.) for language including some sexual references; Genre: Drama, Music; Run time: 1 hr. 44 min.; Distributed by CBS Films.
Credit Readers Anonymous: "Inside Llewyn Davis" Greenwich City filming locations include Cafe Reggio and Caffe Vivaldi.
Box Office, Jan. 24: Movie-goers went along for the ride for a second week in a row, as "Ride Along" repeated at No. 1, with $21.1 million, $75.4 million, two weeks.
2. "Lone Survivor," $12.6 million, $93.6 million, five weeks; 3. "The Nut Job," $12.3 million, $40.2 million, two weeks; 4. "Frozen" (two Oscar nominations: animated film, song: "Let It Go"), $9 million, $347.8 million, 10 weeks; 5. "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," $8.8 million, $30.1 million, two weeks; 6. "I, Frankenstein," $8.2 million, opening; 7. "American Hustle" (10 Oscar nominations: picture, director: David O. Russell, original screenplay: Russell, Eric Singer, actor male: Christian Bale, actor female: Amy Adams, supporting actor male: Bradley Cooper, supporting actor female: Jennifer Lawrence, and costume, production design, editing), $7.1 million, $127 million, seven weeks; 8. "August: Osage County" (two Oscar nominations: actor female: Meryl Streep; supporting actor female: Julia Roberts), $5 million, $26.5 million, five weeks; 9. "The Wolf of Wall Street" (five Oscar nominations: picture, director: Martin Scorsese, screenplay: Terrence Winter, actor male: Leonard DiCaprio, supporting actor male: Jonah Hill), $5 million, $98 million, five weeks; 10. "Devil's Due," $2.7 million, $12.8 million, two weeks
Unreel, Jan. 31:
"Labor Day," PG-13: Kate Winslet stars as a single mom who offers to house an escaped convict, played by Josh Brolin. Jason Reitman directs the drama based on a novel by Joyce Maynard.
"That Awkward Moment," R: Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller star in a romantic comedy about dating. The title does not refer to Efron's Kickstarter fundraising for the film.
Read Paul Willistein's movie reviews at the Lehigh Valley Press web site, thelehighvalley-press.com; the Times-News web site, tnonline.com; and hear them on "Lehigh Valley Art Salon," 6 - 6:30 p.m. Mondays, WDIY 88.1 FM, and wdiy.org, where they're archived. Email Paul Willistein: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow Paul Willistein on Twitter and friend Paul Willistein on facebook.
Two Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes