Saturday, December 7, 2013
(Review) INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Makes Me Want To Reevaluate My Relationship With The Coen Brothers
After watching Joel and Ethan Coen's last three directed movies--A Serious Man, True Grit and now INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS--I can't help but wonder whether I've grown apart from them or they've grown apart from me. We just haven't been connecting lately. It's like that phase in a relationship when you feel like you're not speaking the same language and you're growing farther and farther apart. That's what I think may be happening now with the Coens and I.
I look at the great times--The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men, among others--and I wonder how we got to this point. But I have to imagine that each notch on their nearly thirty-year filmography filled with quirky, batsh*t crazy yet delightful titles may have slowly and steadily led to the moment that became INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. The new film, now playing in select theaters, does bear some resemblance to past Coens' fare with its witty sarcasm, sometimes mindless dribble and random encounters. But it has a whole lot more heart than you're used to seeing from them. In fact, it's like an emo song from the 90s put to film. Except that it's all folk music, circa the 1960s.
I wouldn't call myself a fan of folk music, but I do appreciate how the Coens--who also wrote the screenplay--weaved the lyrics of folk songs (executive produced by T-Bone Burnett) into the message of the film. Oscar Isaac stars as the title character, a wandering folk guitarist/vocalist in Greenwich Village looking for a big break--and not just the professional kind but a break in life. Carey Mulligan plays Jean, his former love interest who he says is full of "bitchriol" (and once you get to know her, you'll understand why). It's great to see Mulligan play a character who snarls a lot and rolls her eyes, a far cry from most her roles. If the film was only about them, and Llewyn essentially trying to find himself, I'd let it pass. But the narrative--peppered with the Coens' usual idiosyncratic smaller parts played by actors like John Goodman and Justin Timberlake--is anchored mainly by its soundtrack. Filled with solemn, yearnful songs that have a very old-timey sound despite the timelessness of the story's setting, the film leaves behind much of the Coens' signature outre dialogue that has captured fans like myself all these years (some of it is still here, but it's few and far between). What's left is a stripped down, more personal Coen brothers film told through song--that folk musical you always knew you never wanted.
Although I commend how emotionally naked the story gets as it follows its nomadic male character across the country, and Isaac is perfectly affective and snarky as Coen brother characters go, I don't feel like this is a Coen brothers film. The past few years I've found the Coens move further away from what made them great and become something of a hybrid of what they used to be mixed with pretension (which is ironically very very unCoen-like). What I always loved most from the talented duo is that they made up their own rules, and they had a very distinct flare to them that is very much their own. This project seems like theirs, but under the influence of others. I feel very disconnected to it, despite its so-called emotional pull.
The cinematography, however, is quite lovely. It matches its folk themes, a very grayish, muddy look like it's always raining--even when it's not. Again, the moodiness. This film reeks of moodiness. I think what I dislike the most is that the film seems to be fighting itself between its pretentious moodiness and the Coens' more natural quirk. And the pretentiousness is overwhelming, which is unfortunate because the outline has potential to be a great Coen brothers film but ultimately becomes weighed down by its own emotions.
With that said, after INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, I may have to take a step back from the Coens and reevaluate our relationship. It's not working out, and it hasn't been working out for a few years now. It's time for me to be honest about that. We've had some good times together, and I hope that we can connect again on another film. But this is just not the one.
Rating: C+ (**1/2 out of *****)