A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2013)

The flashback is a time-honored storytelling device in movies, but if virtually the entire film is a flashback, it better have a purpose for its existence. In Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950), for example, the film flashes back to tell us whose corpse is floating in that swimming pool and why. Inside Llewyn Davis starts with Davis (Oscar Isaac) performing in a Greenwich Village club, then being beaten up for some unknown offense by a man outside that club. The film then flashes back to several days in the life of Davis in which, among other things, he becomes encumbered with a cat, learns that a woman (Carey Mulligan) he knows is pregnant and wants him to fund an abortion, travels to Chicago to try to find a well-paying gig, tries to give up his music career and rejoin the Merchant Marine, and then finally returns to the night he performed at the club and was beaten up, whereupon we learn that he had cruelly heckled his attacker's wife the night before. Is there a meaning to this method of storytelling? If there is, it's probably largely to make the point that Davis is caught in a vicious circle, a spiral of depression and self-destructive behavior. Llewyn Davis is a talented folk musician in a business in which talent alone is not enough: As the Chicago club-owner (F. Murray Abraham) tells him after he performs a song from the album Davis is trying to push, "I don't see a lot of money here." Davis doesn't want a lot of money, just enough to pay for his friend's abortion (which it turns out he doesn't need) and to stop couch-surfing, but every time he is on the verge of making it, something rises up to thwart him. In the movie's funniest scene he goes to a recording gig to make a novelty song, "Please Please Mr. Kennedy," which his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) has written about an astronaut who doesn't want to go into space -- or as Al Cody (Adam Driver), the other session musician, intones throughout the song, "Outer ... space" -- but he signs away his rights to residuals because he needs ready cash. Of course, the song becomes a huge hit. As unpleasant as Davis can often be, his heart is really in the right place: Not only does he agree to fund his friend's abortion, even though the baby may not be his, he conscientiously looks after the cat he accidentally lets out of the apartment where he has been sleeping, and when the cat escapes again he nabs it on the street -- only, of course, to find out that the cat he has picked up is the wrong one. Are the Coens telling us something about good deeds always being punished? Are they telling us anything that can be reduced to a formula? I think not. What they are telling us is that life can be like that: random, unjust, bittersweet. And that, I think, is enough, especially when the lesson is being taught by actors of the caliber of Isaac (in a star-making role), John Goodman (brilliant as usual, this time as a foul-mouthed junkie jazz musician), and a superbly chosen supporting cast. The Coens always take us somewhere we didn't know we wanted to go, but are glad they decided to take us along.