Sunday, January 26, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis Didn’t Do It For Me

The people and places of that early 60’s Greenwich Village scene are legends now. Bleecker Street, Café Wah?, the Kettle of Fish, Gerde’s Folk City, and at its epicenter, The Gaslight Café on McDougal Street. Sean Wilentz, in his book Bob Dylan In America, notes that The Gaslight wasn’t all music. Stand up comics like Bill Cosby and Woody Allen cut their teeth there. Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton and Noel Paul Stookey were there. And it’s been fairly well established that Dylan was “found” there... and briefly passes through here as well, perhaps the highlight of the film.

With meticulous care the Coen Brothers tackled the ambitious aim of telling a story that would re-create this time and place. The much talked about film is Inside Llewyn Davis, which currently has a 7.9 rating at imdb.com, a rating that I consider generous. And to demonstrate how wrong I am, the critics at RottenTomatoes average an 8.6 out of ten.

My first difficulty here is that I heard just a little too much hype going into it so that unrealistic expectations were raised. The soundtrack was supposed to be every bit as fabulous as O Brother Where Art Thou, which I still listen to now and then, but I dunno. I have the real music of the time and that resonates well enough for me. And then that second stumbling stone: the main character at the center of the story itself is no hero. He’s a self-centered jerk.

From an aesthetic point of view the film has fabulous cinematography. Every shot, especially in the first section of the movie, is a work of art. The casting was good, too, though many of the negative reviewers on imdb.com dissed John Goodman’s slot in the film.

The fictitious Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a Greenwich Village folk singer trying to make ends meet while attempting to maintain a foothold on the bottom rung of that ladder that leads upward to the brass ring. Davis has already had a recording, but his partner took his life afterward, leaping from the George Washington Bridge. Now Llewen Davis wants to go it alone. The obstacles are many, the biggest one being himself.

At one point in his odyssey, Llewyn Davis is in a restroom stall reading the graffiti and his eye fastens on the words, “What are you doing?” This may have been intended as cheap bathroom humor, but I imagined it might foreshadow a turning point in Llewen’s life. Sadly, I was mistaken. The arc of the story goes from flat to flatter. I mean, why are there no signs of introspection? Why is this character apparently so clueless regarding the manner in which his own decisions have created his own predicament? And this is essentially the heart of the film’s problem. His bad behavior keeps him from winning our sympathy.

The film is ambiguous on another score. Is this a work of art in which we’re supposed to draw our own unmanipulated conclusions? The irony here is that we do not really see much of what is going on inside Llewyn Davis. And what's with the reviewers calling this a comedy? Robbie Collin in the Daily Telegraph called it "a perfectly pitched melancholic comedy" and Wikipedia calls it "an American comedy-drama."

The Free Dictionary defines comedy as "A dramatic work that is light and often humorous or satirical in tone and that usually contains a happy resolution of the thematic conflict." It didn't.

Dictionary.com offers this definition: "a play, movie, etc., of light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion." It wasn't and it didn't.

Seeing the period recreated was a delight for sure, especially when you’ve been in those neighborhoods. In one scene there’s a Packard, a fifties car that was built by my grandfather from Warren, Ohio.

I had one other complaint regarding this film so full of guitar scenes. I have never known a guitar player who didn’t first tune his instrument. Guitars aren’t pianos, yet not once in this film do we see Llewyn pull out his six-string and first strum a note to see if it’s in tune. Did anyone else have a problem with this?

Though the film failed to inspire me, I’m not sorry I went. There were takeaways. The music was good. And it was nice to see those streets again.    Five stars out of ten.

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