Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Cannes Review of Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen brothers deliver big time with their serious comedy set in New York’s 1960s folk scene

Sat, May 18, 2013, 23:19

   

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

*****

Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake. F Murray Abraham

In competition, 105 min

The latest project from the Coen Brothers sounded so promising one sensed the audience at Cannes watching terrified through its collective splayed fingers. Based on the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk, a kind of John the Baptist to Bob Dylan’s Jesus, the film hangs around Greenwich Village in the months (days, in fact) before the folk scene properly took off. It features Justin Timberlake as one member of a faux-Peter, Paul and Mary. John Goodman spouts furiously while being driven northwards by a crazed beatnik. It’s got one of film’s best ever cats. If something so potentially delicious had not turned out to be a triumph then we may as well have packed up and flown home.

We have good news. The film really delivers. It’s hard to position Inside Llewyn Davis in the Coen canon. It does not sit on the same shelf as the zany ones: The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, Burn After Reading. It is too wispy to qualify as one of their serious pictures: No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, True Grit. You might reasonably argue that it offers a digestible blend of all the brothers’ most agreeable flavours.

The largely unknown Oscar Isaac plays the title character, a cantankerous, self-obsessed folk singer from the outer boroughs. Fellow warbler Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan) — quickly revealed to be pregnant by him — offers up a series of hilariously furious commentaries on his numerous defects. He is, she explains, like some horrible version of King Midas in reverse: everything he touches turns to ordure.

After the first half of a framing sequence that sees Llewyn being beaten up outside the fabled Gaslight Café, we flit back to find him waking up in a friend’s house on the Upper West Side. He mistakenly lets the cat out, then allows the door to close behind him and is forced to carry the poor beast on his search for the next night’s couch. He watches Jean — now uncharacteristically sweet — sing wistful tunes with Timberlake’s rising celebrity and a buttoned-up military man. Eventually, he embarks on a road trip to Chicago.

The film, shot in soft focus by Bruno Delbonnel, is perfectly pitched between nostalgic longing for a much-lauded era — the first few months of 1961 — and gentle, sly cynicism. The Coens quite rightly show confidence in the film’s songs, curated by T Bone Burnett, and allow them to play melodically to their conclusion. There’s a bit of the Kingston Trio here. There is something of Peggy Seeger there. Irish eyes will shine at a brief, respectfully funny pastiche of The Clancy Brothers singing The Auld Triangle.

The cynicism is largely conveyed through the character of Davis himself. Played with overpowering weariness by an actor on the way up, Llewyn is the sort of man who will, when offered an easy way of doing the right thing, still invariably do the worst thing imaginable.

Yet he is not any kind of monster. The script makes it clear that he is still deeply troubled by the recent suicide of his former singing partner. The tolerance that others (though not Jean) display towards him confirms that deep beneath the frayed corduroy jacket there beats a heart worth cherishing.

Deeply in love with a vanished New York City, intoxicated by period detail, the picture reassures us that, after a tiny lull in the early part of this century, the Coens have surged back to, once again, become the most consistently reliable American film-makers of their generation. The film is funny when it’s sad and serious when it’s frivolous. It will surely pick up some sort of prize here in a week’s time.

We do, however, have some bad news. Aware that they probably have a good shot at Oscars, the distributors have decided to hold back the release of Inside Llewyn Davis until blasted December. They’re probably correct about those Oscars. But that doesn’t make it right. Begin counting the days.

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