Inside Llewyn Davis (review)

Llewyn Davis image 1.

Although the film is loosely based on the true story of real-life musician and folk singer Dave Van Ronk, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis unsurprisingly adds an original twist to the tale, crafting a curious narrative around main character Llewyn Davis. Played by one of Hollywood’s recent emerging stars, Oscar Isaac, Llewyn is a character that, I should admit from the start, I fail to fully appreciate… In a movie whose wonderful soundtrack I also fail to fully appreciate.

This is because I lack any previous knowledge about the New York folk music scene of 1961; the setting for Inside Llewyn Davis. Indeed I admit to a lack of any real former appreciation of folk music in general, but one could hardly pick a better 2013 film for an excellent showcase of musical talent than the Coens’ offering. Produced by T Bone Burnett, the films soundtrack includes not only tracks from Bob Dylan and Van Ronk himself, but also modern original songs. This includes the light-hearted – and extremely catchy – “Please Mr Kennedy”, sung onscreen by Isaac, Justin Timberlake (starring as Llewyn’s close friend Jim in a well-acted role) and Adam Driver in a scene that is easily one of the highlights of the film.

Llewyn himself is the typical portrait of a struggling singer/ songwriter who winds up falling into a set of not-so-typical unfortunate circumstances that begin with him losing a ginger cat that belongs to a friend. From here he embarks on the most eventful week of his life, from finding out that his best friend’s partner is pregnant (having recently slept with her) to a Chicago road trip alongside regular Coen Brothers’ collaborator John Goodman, whose character collapses during a routine toilet stop thanks to a heroin overdose, soon after which their driver gets arrested for needlessly arguing with a police officer.

It’s an exciting story told at a fast pace, with signature ‘Coen’ characters strewn throughout the narrative. Yet in a way this is also the films biggest fault. The Coen Brothers, I think, can only follow this pattern so many times before it begins to feel slightly old, and Inside Llewyn Davis seems to reach that pinnacle before tripping itself up over it. Their plot and the characters that drive it are increasingly pushing the boundaries of realism to the point of parody; it is a fine line that this movie threatens to end up on the wrong side of (as was the case with Burn After Reading), which is somewhat of a shame considering it is built on such strong foundations.

Nonetheless, you’d be hard pressed to find a more entertaining American film than this in 2013. Those who enjoy a light-hearted laugh in the cinema will like it very much; those who love their folk music may appreciate it even more. Both will come away reasonably happy, if not entirely satisfied that they’ve just witnessed something meaningful. Not quite the Coen Brothers’ best then, but unfortunately I suspect those days are long behind them regardless of what they achieved here.

8 / 10

Graeme Stevenson

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