Inside Llewyn Davis landed with a thud when the nominations were actually released in February. It picked up just two nominations -- for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing -- but won neither. Should it have picked up some other nominations? That's for others to decide. What isn't up for discussion is that awards season success aside, this is a good movie.
It's 1961 in New York City's Greenwich Village and Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is looking for work and more importantly, some money. A folk musician with a bit of a following, Llewyn released an album with a partner in recent years, but he's on his own now and struggling a bit to get by. His name has a reputation -- somewhat -- as a talented musician who's also a bit flighty. Mostly though, Llewyn wants to sing, to perform, to get his name out there and really to take his career to the next level. He's nearing rock bottom though, his money running out almost completely. It's the dead of winter and he's overextended all his relationships, his friendships, his business connections. He feels he's close, but he just needs that one break...if he can find it.
Another movie that proved difficult to write a one-paragraph plot synopsis. From the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, 'Inside' is a stylish, well-told, throwback-type story that follows about a week in the life of a struggling musician. It's easy to see why there was some outrage when it didn't pick up any prominent Oscar nominations. I'll get into some real analysis later, but the gist is this; it's a really good movie. Not quite a comedy, not a straight drama, it's just good.
The most obvious place to start is with directors/writers/producers Joel and Ethan Coen. There is a certain style in each and every one of their movies from Blood Simple to Fargo, True Grit to No Country for Old Men, O Brother, Where Art Thou to The Big Lebowski. The stylistic choice here is picking the location, 1960s New York City (with some out of state departures). From the look of the movie with the hairstyles, the wardrobe, the cars, the mindset, all these little things add up to one great puzzle. From beginning to end, you feel like you're in 1960s NYC. The visual is almost bland, washed out colors permeating almost every scene. As for the folk background, 'Inside' has an extreme love and appreciation for the folk music scene of the 1960s. It feels authentic down to the smallest detail, and that authenticity goes a long way. The story drifts at times, it's both dark and funny and dramatic, but it just feels real.
A young actor with a ton of potential, Oscar Isaac nails the lead part here as folk singer Llewyn Davis. He's had key supporting parts in Drive, The Bourne Legacy, 10 Years (where he also sang), and Robin Hood, but this is quite the breakout leading part. For starters, Llewyn is far from a likable character. He has moments where you feel sympathy for him, but mostly, his issues are self-made. We learn why he's on his own now and not working as a duo anymore. We learn how he's got to this spot, and most importantly, we see that desperation and frustration of an artist/musician who just wants his shot at the big time. Unlikable qualities aside, with a general lack of sympathy, I still found myself rooting for Llewyn....only to see him rip that away quickly with some jackass move. Like the story though, this has the distinct feel of an authentic character, a person with hopes and dreams, aspirations that just haven't been there so far. Likable? Nope. Interesting, fascinating to watch? Yes, you bet. Interesting to see where Isaac goes next, especially because many thought he should have picked up a Best Actor nomination for his part.
Those Cohens, they specialize in ensemble casts like nobody's business. I guess talented actors and actresses want to work with them for some reason. I especially liked Carey Mulligan as Jean, a fellow folk singer who has a checkered past with Llewyn including one major current issue. Justin Timberlake is excellent too as Jim, Jean's fiance, a singer who's carved a name out for himself already. The pairing of John Goodman as existential-thinking jazz musician Roland Turner is a scene-stealer, Garrett Hedlund providing some 1960s beatnik background as beat poet Johnny Five, Llewyn carpooling to Chicago with the odd duo. F. Murray Abraham has a good part as a Chicago club owner who's got some pull with record labels, giving Llewyn an impromptu audition. Also look for Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as the Gorfeins, a middle-aged married couple who love Llewyn and allow him to crash on their couch from time to time. Max Casella also has a fun part as Papi, a club owner who likes Llewyn and keeps offering him different gigs.
An interesting movie for a whole lot of different reasons, most of them positive. The only one I didn't like was a stylistic choice with a framing device at the beginning and end, but it's not a huge deal. In general, there's plenty of things that can/will draw you in. There's a handful of musical numbers performed -- Isaac especially impressing -- with a nice nod to Bob Dylan late if you're paying attention. But across the board, whether it's the music, the story, the style, the acting, it's just good stuff. Enjoy it, appreciate it.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): ***/****