I’m hard-pressed to say that Joel and Ethan Coen are some of the best filmmakers currently in the industry. Not because they haven’t turned out great or outstanding work, but because they often find themselves falling into the same hole that makes it difficult to crawl out of.
Their problem is that their characters are, more often than not, pathetic losers with little to no redeemable qualities to them or just assholes who only seem to exist to torment others. Sometimes both within the same character.
Now, don’t get me wrong, pathetic losers can be sympathetic and relatable characters, but only if the filmmakers give you a reason to care about them. To latch on to them and want to see their journey. The Coen Brothers rarely seem to do this.
Films such as “Blood Simple,” “Miller’s Crossing,” “Burn After Reading” and, to a lesser extent, “Barton Fink” never beg for the audience’s attention as they mostly meander from scene to scene, with characters who just go with the flow, uncaring about anything that happens.
If the plot and characters don’t care about what occurs, then why should we care?
The Coen’s movies that stick out are the ones which have optimistic, hard-working yet flawed characters, who show that even in a world full of greed, arrogance and stupidity, that there is a light of hope and kindness.
Whether it is a loving and always smiling Margie from “Fargo,” the determined and clever Llewelyn Moss from “No Country For Old Men,” to the feisty and hard-spoken Mattie Ross from “True Grit,” or just the Dude from “The Big Lebowski” who wants his rug back, these characters amplify the film and its world and gives us a reason to watch.
This is why I feel the Coen brothers newest film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” falters and becomes another film that wants to be taken seriously, but ends up being uncaring and cold.
The film follows folk singer Llewyn Davids (Oscar Issac) in 1960’s Greenwich Village, as he tries to make a living off of his singing and performances. He often finds himself on the couch of friends, giving money to those whose lives he screwed up, and getting over the death of his folk singing partner. Try as he might, but Llewyn just can’t seem to catch a break, as more of life’s troubles just keep staking up around him, boxing him in until he can’t take it anymore.
The first question I often find myself asking about any movie is, “Why should I care? Why does this movie deserve my attention? Why should I keep watching it?”
Usually, the movie has this question answered within the first few minutes. “Inside Llewyn Davis” never answered this question.
There is a non-existent plot line in this movie. Events will occur, seemingly at random, with no connection to previous plot points, then move on and hardly ever be mentioned again. In fact, the film seems to go in a big circle, with very little changing. This would be fine if there was some substance to story, but each event is as dull and forgettable as the last.
Well, a tedious plot line that goes no where can be forgiven if the characters are likable and make the journey worthwhile. Unfortunately, the characters of “Inside Llewyn Davis” lack all charm or wit and come off more as assholes, especially Llewyn.
By the end of the film, I hated Llewyn. The man does next to nothing over the course of the movie, other than stare blankly at most of what he witnesses. The only time it seems he breaks out of this is when he insults others, such as the professor and his wife who lend Llewyn their couch or John Goodman’s character who allows him to get to Chicago.
To me, that is an unlikable and boring jerk of a character.
Part of the film seems to lie in the many folk songs that served as inspiration to make “Inside Llewyn Davis” in the first place. While the songs do fit with the tone and presentation of the film, they hardly make up for the lack of story and character.
Not only that, but they’re completely at ends with how folk songs actually work and the people who created these inspiring melodies.
For example, Suzanne Vega, a folk singer who has been playing her music since the 1970s and a huge fan of the Coen brothers, saw “Inside Llewyn Davis” and absolutely hated it, due to the films’ poor understanding of what made folk singers want to be folk singers.
Vega believed the film missed out on two important factors. One was the civil rights movement, which was the moment that caused folk singers to become so popular, yet is never mentioned in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
The other is the films’ lack of optimism.
“The possibility that something will happen,” said Vega. “Whether it’s that you’ll run into someone you know when you go in for a drink, or that you’ll fall in love, or someone will love your new song, or you’ll get the Wednesday-night opening slot, or the Saturday headlining gig: that keeps you going back for years. Those top notes are missing from this movie.”
Some might say that this was the film’s intention. That it is ironic to be about folk singing, an often upbeat and optimistic brand of music, and yet the film is such a downer. I say that doesn’t make the film anymore desirable.
If I were to describe “Inside Llewyn Davis” in a few words, they would be “sad” and “ironic.” But considering the time period and material of this film, that is far from a good thing. In a film like “12 Years A Slave,” being sad or depressing can go a long way and help to amplify the horrifying imagery. But here, it is sad because of the lack of optimism and Coen brothers charm. It makes for an unpleasant experience.
Vega added, “Without the unrelenting faith that something is going to happen — it’s a crazy belief — all the despair just drags along with nothing to contrast it to. If the scene had been as brown and sad as all that, why would anybody be drawn to it?”
Final Grade: D+