What Did I Miss About the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis?


I love the Coen brothers when they tell stories. Fargo is one of my favorite crime films. Blood Simple was great. So were No Country for Old Men and the much-improved remake of True Grit. But when the Coens leave narrative behind and go all ironic and surrealistic on me, I got to admit: I don’t get it. I thought Barton Fink was a cool attitude in search of a movie. A Serious Man was soporific. And as for their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis — currently scoring a 93% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes with critics, a 75% with human beings — my general reaction was:  Hanh?

It’s the story of a good-but-not-great folk singer (played by Oscar Isaac) in the folk singing heyday of the early 60’s. He wanders around Greenwich Village and other parts of New York being kind of an SOB to the other not-very-interesting people around him. Then he makes a pseudo-epic journey to Chicago to audition for a folk song guru. Then more stuff happens and the movie ends.

I guess the theme has something to do with the late, great Jacques Barzun’s theory that genius requires a city-full of lesser lights to bring it to fruition. That is, according to Barzun, the genius is nourished by a community of non-genius artists who lift him to greatness. The Coens are taking a moment to consider the journey of one of those other artists, a performer who will soon be rendered irrelevant by the rise of Bob Dylan. Attention must be paid to such a man, they seem to be saying. Not sure why.

The movie’s not boring, but it’s not very compelling either. And as always with this sort of Coen movie, I can’t help feeling the bros are living off irony and attitude instead of going to work making the sort of film they’re capable of. Having said that, I should add that several people I respect thought this was a great picture. And I myself respect the Coens’ work enough to think that maybe I missed something.



Cross-posted from Klavan on the Culture

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