Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman

Llewyn Davis (Isaac) has made an accidental habit of picking up orange cats. (I love cats. I confess to some slight distraction when they were on screen. Also, this movie has two cats, so by the standard the Academy set after The Artist, and even adjusting for how much Americans like dogs than cats, this movie should have won at least one award for Best Picture. I digress.)

After dragging around the second of the bunch for a long stretch, he finds himself in a predicament. A cop has dragged off Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), the taciturn poet who has smoked more cigarettes than said words on this drive; Johnny picks a weird time to get mouthy. Johnny Five has, unfortunately, dragged the keys to the car away with him. Three hours from Chicago in late winter, with an overdosed fat man in the back seat, no money to speak of, a guitar and some luggage to tote, and what he thinks of as a chance to promote the solo album that never got off the ground, there’s no room for the cat. The cat looks at him very plaintively, and Llewyn looks back at the cat, but Llewyn shuts the door; she won’t be coming with him to Chicago.

Later in the movie, after Llewyn leaves Chicago (it didn’t end well), he manages to hitch a ride with the sleepiest guy in the world. The sleepy guy takes a nap, presumably aided by laudanum or something else that puts him out like Steve Martin in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and Llewyn drives. He’s learned, while scheduling and trying to put up the money for an abortion, that the last woman he got an abortion for decided to keep the baby and move to Akron. She didn’t tell Llewyn about it; he hears about it a full two years after from the doctor. But there, on the road and with the means to check her out (albeit without an address to go on), Llewyn sees the sign for Akron, thinks about it, and decides in the end not to go. Like leaving the cat, it’s more or less understandable. Llewyn couldn’t have provided for the cat any more than it could have provided for itself. Llewyn has no way to find a woman and a two-year-old in a city of about 300,000 people without any leads. He seems not to be given to fine gestures; poverty has made him ruthlessly practical, but it has also emptied him of sentiment. What should be lit up within him has been doused.

We never really get a sense as to why he takes himself so seriously; it’s mostly bound up in his demeanor, which is perpetually stone-faced but given, from time to time, to little moments of humor. (Isaac is capable of some marvelous dry quips, especially when given some setup by another character; his “Have you ever heard the expression ‘It takes two to tango?'” is art.) Compared to other Coen characters, whose blaring stupidity or utter cluelessness land them in their plights, Llewyn’s problem is almost inscrutable. If he felt like his family was overbearing, then maybe the self-destructiveness would make sense. But his interactions with his father and his sister (and his joyfully blase nephew) are unspectacular. His father is a merchant marine legend, apparently, and his sister is businesslike and brusque. Reacting to them would be too, too disproportionate to his problems. If he were in love with Mike and subsequently tailspinning, his self-destructiveness would make sense, but there’s no real intimation of a romance with Mike. There’s more to be said about the way he interacts with Jean. Everyone, as we come to understand, wants to bang her, and it’s a sentiment he has to pay for later on with his face. He pays for an abortion for her, although the movie’s timeline doesn’t allow us to know if she’s gone through with it; for her it’s particularly sad, as the child she’s aborting might actually be her husband’s. If he is in love with her, then he conceals it fairly well; more than likely it’s the sentiment he can literally no longer afford to have. She curses him out with aplomb. Short the odd comeback, he more or less takes it. This is, so far, my favorite Carey Mulligan role. So often she’s played someone a little daffy or flighty; Jean, whatever her sexual history is, is neither one of those. I don’t suppose that Mulligan will ever be known for her tough girls, but this film is clear proof that she could stand to do it more often.

The Coens find a way to squeeze some humor out of Llewyn’s situation with a song which about killed me. Jim (Justin Timberlake), Jean’s husband, gets Llewyn to join the so-called “John Glenn Singers” for a novelty song. Called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” it’s like the non-racist version of Bill Dana’s Jose Jimenez bits.  Everything about it is funny. Llewyn spits out the “P-p-please” with mock gusto for Jim, who wants it that way. “Who wrote this?” Llewyn asks. “I did,” Jim says, a little hurt. The two unwitting rivals are funny enough, but Adam Driver stole this scene so blatantly that he ought to be prosecuted. Wearing a ridiculous cowboy hat and smiling blandly, with a guitar slung around him but his hands nowhere near it, Al is there to add his deep voice as punctuation to the song. “Chute,” he says over and over while Llewyn and Jim are quarreling, like it’s some weird oral fixation. “Chuuuute. Sheeeute. Shyute.” His performance during the song itself is the stuff dreams are made of. While Jim gets into the song and Llewyn plays along, Al is on a totally different planet. “Outer. Space. Outer? Space!” It is probably not the movie’s best scene, but not unlike the recording of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” in O Brother Where Art Thou?, this one is bound to be disproportionately remembered.

It would be cliche to say that the music gives him a release for whatever is bound up inside him, and in this case it also happens to be wrong. While he’s in Chicago, he manages to schmooze his way into a meeting with Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of a notable club. He auditions for him, and Grossman is tolerably impressed. He doesn’t see Llewyn as a solo act; he says that he can see him as part of a trio, primarily singing harmony and, of course, paring down the beard to a goatee. When Llewyn declines, Grossman recommends that he get back together the guy he was in a duo with (not knowing, of course, that the curiously named Mike Timlin killed himself, and it’s not in Llewyn’s character to correct him). Grossman is right, even if Llewyn sees himself as a man capable of doing just fine on his own. The character is technically proficient, good enough on the guitar and with a good voice. But he’s only five-nine, his voice is good but not memorable, and folk music was never the venue to show off what a good guitarist you are. The fact that he does not have much sentiment seems to circle around into making him a person who does not inspire much as a viewer. With a different set of values, Llewyn would probably have been a very good worship leader at a church somewhere; somewhere along the line he convinced himself that he was bound for stardom instead. Too proud to take a good gig, too proud to make his feelings for the woman he wants clear, he will doubtless fade away.

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