Remember when bluegrass/Americana music had that big resurgence among Volvo-driving NPR listeners in the wake of the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Are Though? in 2001? Did you happen to notice a similar boom in folk music in the past few months? No? Well that's because the Coens new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis simply isn't as good for reasons far beyond its porno-sounding title.
It's 1961 in New York's Greenwich Village folk scene and Davis (Oscar Issac) is a virtually homeless mess, couch-surfing from one friend and family member to another, rapidly wearing out his welcome with his prickly personality. When crashing his friends Jim and Jean's (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) place, the latter informs him she's pregnant and she blames him as if she had no participation in the matter. His manager doesn't seem to be doing anything for his career and he embarks on a surreal road trip to Chicago with a blustering jazz musician (John Goodman) and his monosyllabic driver/valet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), who isn't the robot from Short Circuit. There's also a cat.
While writing the previous paragraph, I realized I was both leaving out some stuff to not spill the entire plot, but also that there isn't really that much more to it. If it wasn't for the numerous full performances of the tunes eating up about 45 minutes of the 105-minute run time, the "story" as it is would only take an hour and it's not exactly a jam-packed hour. It plays out more as a serious of vignettes and misadventures as Llewyn stumbles from self-inflicted disaster to self-inflicted disaster, but while he's a prickly jerk, it's poorly motivated and explained. He can sing and the soundtracks pre-Dylan tunes are sweet, but no explanation as to his lack of success is provided. Most damning, Llewyn not only doesn't really have a character arc but literally ends up exactly where he began the movie, confusing the timeline badly.
The performances are good, especially Mulligan who I've never thought of as anything by wanly cute, but she's one note as are pretty much all the other characters who just serve as totems for Llewyn to pass by. There are several amusing chuckles and the running gag with the cat is amusing, but the Coens manage to make that a bummer. Mostly nothing pays off. One amusing scene has Llewyn recording a novelty song with Timberlake and Adam Driver (from the Lena Dunham horror anthology series Girls) and is clearly intended to show him making a terrible business decision for short-term gain, but it never resolves due to the short timeline of the movie. If we're going to make our hero suffer, let's seem him suffer; let's get some conflict between him and the universe.
I've been critical of what I call the "pity-f*cking" of Martin Scorsese beginning with his overdue Oscar for The Departed (which wasn't that good) and subsequent mediocrities like Hugo and especially Shutter Island (which I contend would've been torched by crix if it was by Martin Smith), but it's even worse for the Coen Brothers as they are just fawned over despite their output becoming more banal and tiresome. Just look at the quotes in the trailer below; yeesh. Woody Allen used to automatically get nominated for his screenplays (he as 16 nominations, including 13 in a 20-year span; 3 wins) but while critics tend to evaluate his work on a film-by-film basis, the Coens have been getting a pass since they returned from the wilderness with the screamingly overrated No Country For Old Men, a movie which proved you can win a Best Picture Oscar with one good scene with one memorable line in it. (i.e. The coin toss scene at the gas station and the line about how long it took the quarter to get there.) Some critics were horrified that Inside Llewyn Davis wasn't nominated for everything at the Oscars this year. It would've been more unjust that it had been.
Score: 5/10. Skip it unless you're a total Coen fanboy or folk fiend.