"Inside Llewyn Davis": A Tale of Two Reviews (One Is Actually Just a Reaction)

posted Jan 14, 2014, 6:07 PM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Aug 16, 2014, 9:34 AM ]

I'm not a film critic. I don't know enough about the process of filmmaking to provide legitimate film criticism, so I generally offer are reaction pieces based largely on my feelings about a particular film.


Such is the case with this piece I wrote about the Golden Globe-nominated “Inside Llewyn Davis”.

There are good movies.


There are bad movies.


There are movies people are going to like or even love.


There are movies people are just not going to like or even hate.


And then there are movies that some people are just NOT going to understand enough to appreciate. Inside Llewyn Davis is one of those movies. But it's not the movie's fault.


The Coen Brothers are one of those entities in moviedom that I can appreciate but wouldn't necessarily consider myself to be a fan of. I don't specifically go out to see THEIR movies. Any movie of theirs I've seen (and I actually can't even think of another one besides this one), I saw based on my interest in the film as opposed to their involvement in it.


Such was the case with Inside Llewyn Davis. Therefore, I didn't go into the theatre expecting to see a standard, or even a quasi-standard, Coen Brothers movie. And this is probably why I enjoyed it more than those whose reviews or opinions of it were mixed.


Inside Llewyn Davis is not a heavily-plotted movie. It's basically a week in the life of a struggling musician on several brinks during New York's folk scene in the early 1960s. But within this simple plot are a great many story threads that are driven by Llewyn's interrelationships with the other characters. A lot of people find that hard to follow because they're spending so much time looking for a clearer, more delineated plot (as opposed to a premise).


But this is what makes the film so great for me. There are no explosions. There is no heavy drama. There's very little violence. There's no sex. But there is GREAT music -- sung live by the film's aesthetically pleasing and well-cast leading man, Oscar Isaac. Plus it has Vinnie Delpino from Doogie Howser, M.D. (the actor's name is Max Casella). And what Coen Brother movie would be complete without John Goodman, who's never bad in anything good.


What I love most about the movie is that it's bleak and at times, depressing. There are humorous moments, but it's hardly a feel good movie. There's no happy ending, nor should there be. It's a movie about an artist and artistry is bleak. At times, it's even depressing. Not everyone gets a big break. Not everyone achieves what is conventionally considered "success". For a lot of artists, "success" is predicated on continuing to write, act, sing, draw, paint and design regardless as to whether anyone is reading, watching, listening, seeing, commissioning or wearing.


A lot of movies don't reflect that. And lesser movies would have him performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, getting a record deal and then going out on tour.


This is why I don't go out to see a lot of movies these days. A lot of what Hollywood has to offer is derivative, formulaic, sequellic and rebootal. Blockbuster movies in the summer. Oscar-bait movies in the fall. Plus ticket prices have gotten so high that I may as well go see a play.


But Inside Llewyn Davis was a refreshing change of pace for me, so it was well worth the cost. Perhaps it'll someday be adapted for the stage. And if HBO is watching, the movie will lend itself quite well to a TV series -- with Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis and only Oscar Issac as Llewyn Davis because Oscar Isaac IS Llewyn Davis.

Because I don't watch enough movies in any given year and haven't seen enough of them throughout film history, I don't have that big-picture purview and historical context needed to provide a thorough analysis of any individual film.

Therefore I defer to The Postman, whose film reviews are always very insightful and based on demonstrated knowledge of the filmmaking process, a fluid understanding of each film's approach to that process, familiarity with a variety of film genres as well as a historical context -- all without coming across dry, stuffy or elitist as typical film critics.


The Postman reviewed the film on December 30 and I’ve reposted it here. With permission.


Dear Members of the Route,


Inside Llewyn Davis is the latest film from the Coen brothers, filmmakers whom I have seldom loved.  Much of the time, I find them condescending towards their quirky characters, a little too pleased with themselves, and their films are often emotionally disconnected.  I thought, I hoped, there had been a switch in recent years with their wonderful film A Serious Man, a funny but still affectionate look at their upbringing as midwestern Jews in the 1960's.  But then came True Grit, an utterly unnecessary and unmemorable remake.


This movie tells the story of Llewyn, a folk singer who is trying to become a solo act after his singing partner broke the group up.  He is talented, but he's also an asshole and a drifter: he couch-surfs from one place to another, living off the graces of a group of friends (and occasionally his sister), none of whom seem to like him very much.  Though somewhat episodic, the film's narrative is rich: Llewyn has various opportunities to become a better man and perhaps a more successful artist, and the dramatic thrust is to see whether or not he can or will do so.  Along the way, we meet a host of folk singers (one of whom he may have made pregnant), a jazz musician heroin addict, some Upper West Side professor types, an agent who might be his ticket to the big time, and a fairly marvelous cat.  This film is no comedy, despite some very lovely moments of humor.  It is the tragedy of an artist who is, ultimately, a failure, and it's kind of wonderful to see a film avoid the cliches of artistic expression.  The ending contains a rich inside joke, is open-ended enough to invite one's own interpretation, and is utterly satisfying.


The cast is stellar.  Oscar Isaac is perfection as Davis: prickly, obnoxious, but somehow likable.  He also happens to be a marvelous musician, so there's this grand irony that we can see his talents where the characters in the film often can't.  But every character, and every performance, is wonderful, from Justin Timberlake to Carey Mulligan to Stark Sands to Adam Driver to Robin Bartlett to F. Murray Abraham to John Goodman (who nearly steals the film) to that unbelievably expressive cat.  But the revelation here is that even when some of the supporting characters seem like stereotypes (a Coen brothers specialty), they never lapse into caricature and are portrayed with affection, even down to the tiny secretary at Davis' agent's office.


Even better, Inside Llewyn Davis is also one of the best crafted films of the year.  The cinematography is cold and gorgeous: all the colors washed out into various palates of greys. The art direction and costumes are perfect, providing an evocative sense of time and place. The soundtrack is a marvelous collection of old folk songs, beautifully sung and produced. Inside Llewyn Davis may be the Coens' finest film to date, and it may also be the best movie of the year.


The Postman

You want a review???  I'll give you... A REVIEW!!!