Watching “Inside Llewyn Davis”
After this year’s Oscar nominations were announced, film critics took to social media to voice their complaints. Many of them were outraged by the snubbing of the new Coen Brothers film, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” One of my favorite tweets said something along the lines of “Congratulations to all the best picture nominees. And congratulations to ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ for actually being the best picture of the year.”
Having now seen “Inside Llewyn Davis,” I think it’s safe to say that it’s one of the best films of year, and better than perhaps all but one of the best picture nominees. If I were to revise my list of the best films of 2013, “Inside Llewyn Davis” would probably be third, behind “Upstream Color” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of the best films the Coen Brothers have ever made, which is saying something. It revisits themes from some of their previous films, such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, with its emphasis on American music and nods to Homer’s Odyssey, and the more recent “A Serious Man,” about a modern-day Job. But it also builds upon the brothers’ earlier work, exploring matters of philosophy and religion with a surprisingly light touch. For a film about an unhappy folk singer’s doomed quest for popular success in the aftermath of his singing partner’s suicide, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is both fun and funny, filled with the sort of quirky, offbeat characters and touches the Coens are known for. A basic description of the plot of “Inside Llewyn Davis” makes it sound like a depressing experience. But the film is a joy to sit through.
At heart, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a character study. It tells the story of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, who is excellent), a struggling member of Greenwich Village’s early folk music scene. When the film opens, he’s short of cash, crashing on the sofas of friends and acquaintances, and has just learned that a woman he recently slept with, Jean (Carey Mulligan), who happens to be the wife of his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), is pregnant. Llewyn is also baffled by what’s happening in the folk music scene: He’s clearly very gifted, and pours his heart out singing haunting traditional songs. But well-scrubbed performers (think the Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul & Mary) with less talent are earning both accolades and money. (“Does he have a higher function?” Llewyn asks Jim, while watching an especially well-scrubbed young musician perform.)
The film’s bleak, strange middle section depicts Llewyn’s journey to Chicago to meet a famous record executive; he shares a car with an aging jazz musician played by John Goodman, a young beat poet played by Garrett Hedlund and an orange cat. Along the way, we learn about the death of Llewyn’s partner, and it became apparent to me that the film is as much about grief as anything.
I watched “Inside Llewyn Davis” the same week I saw Spike Jonze’s “Her,” which is about a man grieving the end of his marriage. And as much as I enjoyed “Her,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a bit more my style. “Her’s” protagonist is something of a passive milquetoast; Llewyn Davis, in contrast, is angry and sarcastic and weary. In other words, he’s not especially likable. But I found it easy to empathize with him, as his sorrow and solitude are palpable.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a brilliant recreation of a crucial musical era. Llewyn Davis is loosely based on a real folk singer who toiled in obscurity: Dave Van Ronk, who befriended folk legends such as Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. The film’s music was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who also produced the music for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and it’s excellent. Among other things, the soundtrack features a haunting version of the traditional folk ballad “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and a goofy novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy.” And when a young SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM! Dylan takes the stage near the end of the film, it’s a real treat.
REMEMBERING PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN
In light of recent sad events, I thought I’d make a list of my favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances.
10. ‘The Master’ — Not my favorite film, but Hoffman is fantastic as an L. Ron Hubbard-like cult leader.
9. ‘Love Liza’ — Hoffman is the focal point of this little seen, downbeat drama about a grieving man whose wife recently committed suicide.
8. ‘Punch Drunk Love’ — This 2002 film is a showcase for Adam Sandler’s seldom-used acting talent, but Hoffman shines as the operator of a phone-sex line.
7. ‘Synecdoche, New York’ — Not everybody’s cup of tea, but I greatly enjoyed this surrealist look at a depressed artist’s struggle to complete his masterwork.
6. ‘Happiness’ — In this spellbinding portrait of depraved and dysfunctional suburbanites, Hoffman plays a lonely man who makes obscene phone calls to his neighbor.
5. ‘Almost Famous’ — Hoffman is terrific in his few scenes as the music critic Lester Bangs.
4. ‘Capote’ — Hoffman rightly won the Oscar for his memorable portrayal of the talented and troubled writer.
3. ‘Magnolia’ — Hoffman is best known for playing tormented characters, but he was also good at playing healthy, functional people. In this 1999 film, he shines as a kindly, almost saintly, nurse.
2. ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ — Hoffman gives the best performance in a film filled with great performances, Sidney Lumet’s underappreciated final film.
1. ‘Owning Mahowny’ — The movies are filled with compulsive gamblers. Hoffman plays one of the most memorable in this excellent 2003 drama.
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