By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 11, 2014)
Q: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend?
-an old joke (author unknown)
Some years back, while working as a morning radio host in Fairbanks, I was once scheduled to do an on-air interview with a popular Alaskan folk singer named Hobo Jim, who was slated to perform that evening. Unfortunately, he missed the interview window. The exasperated promoter called me after my show, explaining Jim was still on the road. While transportation had been offered, Jim had declined, preferring instead to hitchhike the 360 miles from the previous night’s gig in Anchorage. Oh well…I figured there had to be some reason they called this fellow “Hobo” Jim.
Then of course you’ve got your Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, your Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Steve Martin’s “Ramblin’ Guy”…and now, thanks to the fertile imaginations of the Coen Brothers, your couch-surfin’ Llewyn Davis. “Rambling” and “freewheeling” could describe the tone of Inside Llewyn Davis, a loose (very loose) narrative depicting several days in the life of the eponymous character, a sad sack folk singer (Oscar Isaac).
The year is 1961, and the percolating Greenwich Village coffeehouse music scene provides the backdrop. That Zimmerman kid and some of his contemporaries are starting to make a bit of a splash; Llewyn Davis, not so much. Llewyn is one of those struggling artists perennially mired at the crossroads of “The Big Time” and “Bus Ride Back to Obscurity”.
Llewyn has tons of down time, in between spotty gigs and waiting for (any) news from his comically ineffectual manager, Mel Novikoff (the late Jerry Grayson). He spends most of that time brooding. He has a lot of things to brood over. Like why nearly all the pressings of his first solo album (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) have been returned by the record company and are sitting in unopened boxes in Mel’s office. Or why his former musical partner decided to throw himself off the George Washington Bridge soon after the duo released their only album. Or why Jean (Carey Mulligan) the girlfriend and singing partner of his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and with whom he has had a brief fling, is blaming him for a surprise pregnancy and pressing him to pay for an abortion. And then there is the matter of a lost cat, that he finds, but then loses again (don’t ask).
I suppose it wouldn’t be a proper folk singer’s yarn if there wasn’t a bit of that ramblin’, and it arrives in the form of Llewyn’s road trip to Chicago with a misanthropic jazz musician (Coen stalwart John Goodman), a pithy beat poet (Garret Hedlund) and the aforementioned cat (who says nothing). This is the centerpiece of the film, as well as the most recognizably “Coen-esque” sequence (you could say it’s where the rubber meets the road, literally and metaphorically). In fact, how you respond to what transpires therein will determine whether you come away loving or hating the film.
If that sounds nebulous, you don’t know the half of it. Especially once you try to digest the metaphysical conundrum at the end that makes you question how much of what you’ve just seen is, erm, what you’ve just seen. Aw, screw it. It’s the Coens-deal with it. That whole “don’t expect a cohesive narrative” thing aside, the Coens have succeeded in making another one of those films that you find yourself digesting for a couple days afterward.
While I wouldn’t put it up there with one of their certified classics like Blood Simple, Fargo, or No Country for Old Men, it fits in comfortably with chin-stroking character studies like Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man. And there are quotable lines; not as numerous as in, let’s say, The Big Lebowski…but I enjoyed genuine belly laughs amid the angst.
As usual, the Coens have assembled a sterling ensemble (F. Murray Abraham is a particular delight in his cameo as a jaded impresario). The musical performances by the actors (produced by T-Bone Burnett) are heartfelt and impressive; especially when stacked against ringers like Timberlake. Attention to period detail adds to the verisimilitude. Inside Llewyn Davis may not answer all the important questions (I still don’t know how many roads a man must walk down, before they call him a man) but it hits all the right notes.