By Armond White
When an apparition of Bob Dylan appears in Inside Llewyn Davis, it underscores the Coen Brothers’ abiding ambivalence about their Jewishness. Dylan, the oracular pop-star-prophet -outsider from Minnesota (like the Coens) represents an advance on mainstream culture and power that troubles the Coen Brothers’ fascination with American character.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the latest go-round for these clever lads’ interest in the agonies of personal identity amidst a heartless society not entirely their own. Llewyn (Oscar Isaacs), a dark, curly-haired folksinger in 1961 New York City, is barely over the suicide of his singing partner. He’s economically strapped, homeless, living off patronizing friends and virtually begging for a solo recording career while also booty-begging for understanding from a free-spirit Greenwich Village girl (Cary Crybaby Mulligan) he might have impregnated.
Knocking at the door of WASP-Americana–the 50s-60s folk-music craze–Llewyn is a modern Wandering Jew who, like Dylan, dare not speak his ethnicity (his name is a Welsh creation like Dylan’s chosen’s moniker). The Coens cutely symbolize Llewyn’s rootlessness in his constant chasing after a friends’ runaway Calico cat named Ulysses–more cuteness evoking the Homeric wandering of the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou? While that 2001 film was a surprising rich excursion into country music culture and America’s racial legacy, Inside Llewyn Davis offers no surprises. It’s solemn but not funny.
The Coens’ peripatetic imagination frequently dips into recurring obsessions (the film noir genre, pop music totems, literary antecedents and sharp political satire) finding rich veins of humor and feeling–as in their best movies The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Ladykillers, The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man. But Inside Llewyn Davis is their first movie that feels wholly redundant.
This is a thornier problem than simply the Coens’ self-pleasing sarcasm, their intellectual narcissism. They’re not clever by half; it’s second nature to these new era movie brats. But the self-pleasing self-indulgence may offer less meaning in itself than it does to them and their fans. That eye-wink title, Inside Llewyn Davis, refers to his non-selling solo debut album (he stashes a milk crate full of the vinyl discs at a friend’s apartment) as well as a teasing exploration of his soul. Problem is, Llewyn’s “soul” is shown without the insight into Jewish tradition (which made A Serious Man extraordinary) but as a series of beautifully-tooled, second-hand motifs.
Here, the Coens revisit the untrustworthy pop culture of Barton Fink and the Jewish paranoia of A Serious Man. Combined, they question the ethics of American pop culture and the neediness of Jewish artists. Been there, atoned for that.
Working with talented cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who shot Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow and Aleksander Sokurov’s bizarre, redundant Faust), the Coens lose the sharp, emotional evocation of regular collaborator Roger Deakins, who gave vision to Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, for a more obvious illustration of existential mystery. This film looks good: Dark and shadowy with pale, hazy light–moody road scenes of Llewyn driving through blurred visibility and traffic bumps.
But sharpness matters; it proves perception and insight. Delbonnel proves the Coens are coasting. Satire on haimish Jewish camaraderie may be affectionate and recognizable (a colleague’s wife tells Llewyn “I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul”) yet this doesn’t go beyond Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976) which piercingly captured the Jewish New Yorker’s response to sex, hip, Hollywood, pop and Americana. Instead, The Coens go “smart.” Llewyn meets John Goodman as a Burl Ives-folk icon on two canes with a heroin addiction and his dour, sexually ambiguous chauffeur (Garrett Hedlund of last year’s fine but neglected On the Road adaptation) plus a sneaky bookshelf nod to Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
Fans and critics who are familiar with the Coens will overrate these details. Problem is, Inside Llewyn Davis (with its lament “Where is its scrotum?!!” and jokey references to Disney’s The Incredible Journey) question Jewish alienation superficially. HBO’s Flight of the Conchords was a more trenchant display of outsiders’ music biz alienation. But Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn, with his Hoffman-Pacino whine, seems disconnected from his own singing and lacks the great feeling he showed in his role as the remorseful pop star in the high school reunion film Ten Years.
Critics who cluelessly praise T-Bone Burnett’s musical production ignore Burnett’s drab musicianship. The musical banality of Inside Llewyn Davis is its greatest problem–impersonal, apolitical folk music. Llewyn, a modern version of Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man–searching for his place in society and the universe, dangling between expectation and reality–really is less talented than Llewyn’s deeply envied WASP competitor GI Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) who has the unfathomable gift of connecting to listeners.
Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t connect. The Coens are facetious about Llewyn’s personal crisis. That’s why the movie ends the same way as Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers with Dylan revolutionizing Jews’ and the world’s selfconsciousness. The slick, talented Coens may please fans who are already familiar with their habits but, sadly, for gifted, witty film artists, the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis says nothing new.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair