Monday, December 23, 2013

Melancholy portrait of down and out folkie

So Inside Llewyn Davis, which I’d been dying to see all fall, is good – very good in fact – but didn’t quite peak out at the range I might have been expecting. The movie chronicles one artist in New York’s early 1960s folk scene just before the arrival of its most famous denizen, Bob Dylan. In reality this is a pretty straight forward character portrait of an individual who happens to be a folk singer. Supposedly loosely based on musicians like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Dave Van Ronk whose memoir 'The Mayor of MacDougal Street' was used for some scene setting, Inside Llewyn Davis pretty much captures the feel of the period but more the day to day travails of a struggling artist, who has no money and is forced to sleep on friends’ and acquaintances’ couches. Oscar Isaac as Lleywn Davis is superb with utterly no signs of self-consciousness for the up-close depiction of a musician off and on the stage, and he’s a great singer! Isaac sings live in the film as does one of his musician friends, Jim Berkey played by Justin Timberlake. There is little to fault in this picture. The fact it was made by the Coens, who have never made a bad film and are among the most interesting filmmakers for their topic and plot selections, pretty much seals the deal before you even walk into the theatre.  If there’s anything that’s a Coens’ trademark it’s irony. But there wasn’t much here unless it’s in John Goodman’s character Roland Turner, as a gross full-of-himself burnt out jazz artist who incessantly dumps on the folk genre – and Davis - during an interminable car ride to Chicago. It’s been said the movie has no plot but it has one, just one that’s not deeply gouged out. The period’s bleak winter New York scenes are good, though the film is typically confined to indoor shots or tight street scenes and I always suspect the same vintage cars are used over and over; some of these old beaters’ doors squeaked a little too much. This could be a movie about innumerable artists of any period who have significant talent but for one reason or another – lack of contacts, bad personalities, no lucky breakthroughs – can’t get enough traction. In the end we’re sad for Davis whose career is bookended by another walk-on talent at the Gaslight Café. You know the guy, he has frizzy hair and plays a harmonica.

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