There’s much to admire, but not much to enjoy, in Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan Coen, two Minnesota boys, have won great acclaim over 30 years of filmmaking, sharing a dozen Oscar nominations for writing, directing, and best picture. Their films cover an amazing range of genres, from dark and violent, like best-picture winner No Country for Old Men (2007), to quirky-funny, like The Big Lebowski (1998). You could say that, with Raising Arizona (1987), the Coens invented quirky-funny. A longtime favorite in my family is O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the comic odyssey of a trio of chain-gang escapees in 1937 Mississippi.
They can’t all be jewels, though, and Inside Llewyn Davis, with its wan December light, kept making me think of all the potentially good stuff that isn’t there. It’s got a stripped-down storyline, to begin with: a week in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who is struggling to make it as a folksinger in 1961 Greenwich Village, sponging off his friends and sparring with his agent. At night he rotates from one pal’s couch to another, and he spends his chilly days hauling his guitar and few possessions around the city. As to talent — there’s something there, but not really enough to set him apart from the crowd of other musical strugglers. The film follows Llewyn through a week of discomforts and disappointments, but without a turning point; at the end, he’s right back where he started.
So it’s quieter than the Coens’ hit movies, but it has a bigger problem. It’s that Llewyn is so hard to like. He’s not a nice guy. He taunts people. He lies. He’s numb to the kindness of others, and quick to repay it with anger. He condescendingly tells a pregnant girl that her hope of marriage and musical success is “a little careerist, and a little square, and a little sad.” He heckles a middle-aged Ozarks woman in vulgar terms, as she tries to sing onstage. There’s not a lot to like here, and there’s nobody else to focus on. The movie is all about Llewyn, and other characters are seen only in relation to him.
It can work, if a movie’s main character is hard to like. Think of Frank T. J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) in Magnolia (1999), for example, a louse and narcissist who taught a course in seducing women. But Mackey was tormented, and as the story unfolded we came to understand the pain that drove him. Llewyn is not tormented; he’s just irritable. And, though he experiences many reverses in the course of the story, he doesn’t learn or grow. He just gets more exhausted.
Yes, we do learn that Llewyn had a singing partner who committed suicide, and maybe that could have provided an explanation. But there’s no sign that Llewyn is troubled by this loss, or even thinks about it. Judging from the way his sister and the pregnant girl lash into him, it seems that he’s been a jerk for a long time.
It’s not as if there are no bright spots. The music, mostly traditional folk songs, is wonderful; T-Bone Burnett produced, as he did on O Brother. Some performances particularly stand out, like the tight harmony of an Irish quartet on “The Auld Triangle,” and the sweet, clear voice of Stark Sands as a polite soldier who hitchhiked from Fort Dix to sing at a local café. (He’s another character who treats Llewyn kindly and is insulted in return: Llewyn snarls, “They making you a killing machine?”) The cinematography is excellent, making the most of a wintry monochrome palette. Some moments call to mind other, more enriched Coen movies, such as the flashing of passing subway stations as they must appear to an orange cat Llewyn is stuck with for the day.
The most Coen-y element, however, is Roland Turner (John Goodman), a grotesque, overbearing, and eventually threatening jazz musician, who sprawls across the back seat of a Chicago-bound car that Llewyn, hitchhiking, flagged down. He’s got it all: immense bulk, scary cough, arch delivery, bad toupee, and not one but two silver-headed canes. In fact, he’s got too much. He’s a parody of a quirky Coen character. When Goodman’s Big Dan Teague appears in O Brother, he’s believably a complete character, with a life that extends beyond his time on screen. Roland Turner is the opposite of that. He’s a gratuitous collection of odd props and mannerisms, thrown into the story like artificial flavoring.
Most reviews of Inside Llewyn Davis are enthusiastic, so I could be wrong; I’m clearly not seeing what others do. But I notice a pattern of reviewers praising the music and then advising theatergoers not to expect too much. But I always expect too much from the Coens. For that, they have only themselves to blame.