The Coen Brothers have established arguably the best record of any filmmakers in their long and mostly sterling career, so reliable in their ability to produce not just good movies, but great movies seemingly every year without fail that their collective name attached to a project is practically a guarantee that it will end up on a best list for something at some point. There have been a few missteps, notably The Lady Killers and Intolerable Cruelty, but even they weren't necessarily terrible, just bad in relation to other Coen Brothers movies. This year's effort is perhaps their most esoteric yet, playing into one of the few stereotypes you can apply to their eclectic oeuvre, that they will inevitably find a subject you would never think you could care about, and then make you care about it. The lives of folk musicians in the 60's is a particularly tall hill to climb, and after watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I'm still not quite sure if I quite made it over the edge.
Inside Llewyn Davis follows the somewhat listless travails of the titular troubadour as he grapples with the recent suicide of his former partner and struggles to find his place in a world and a music scene that seems to be on the cusp of changing without him. If there can be said to be a standard Coen-esque protagonist, it would be the lovable loser, that guy you can't help but root for as the world around him conspires to stymie his efforts at every turn. Llewyn Davis is certainly a loser, but for once, he's not all that lovable, not due to any failure on the part of the film to make him so, but purely by design. A twist on the beleaguered nice guy that found its apotheosis in 2009's A Serious Man, Davis is the architect of his own problems, a shiftless misanthrope who goes through life taking advantage of everyone he knows without remorse and, perhaps to his slim credit, taking it relatively in stride when his own karma continuously sets him back.
It works up to a point, but only until you realize that very little is actually happening in his life to justify building a whole movie around him. He's engaging as a character and funny enough as he flails from one minor event to the next, but when the sum total of action occurring in the movie is a brief and mostly uneventful road trip bookended by the main character's depressed shuffling from one crash pad to the next, I can't help but question what it was all for. Well, actually its bookended by a performance at a club that ends with him getting punched in the face, which is cathartic after two hours of watching the guy dick around and glower, but not so much that it makes the effort worthwhile. It is by the grace of the Coen's writing and directing that such a plot less, directionless movie can still be as entertaining as it is, but while it suffices for one viewing, even their skill can't push this story up into the annuls of their past success, and I doubt it will be heralded as classic in the long run.
I may be over-analyzing it, in fact I almost certainly am, but I keep finding myself stuck on this weird theory that Inside Llewyn Davis might be some sort of intentional swipe at the Coen Brothers made by the Coen Brothers themselves. The Coens are two of those directors who despite their repeated claims of straightforwardness often find their work analyzed for its many hidden meanings and references, and Davis seems almost deceptive in its superficiality, as if it is meant to invite that sort of investment only to prove how meaningless it is on purpose. The title character's apparent depth is unraveled and revealed to be wanting by the end almost as an afterthought, and the whole movie is connected by the thread of a mysterious cat that clearly must hold some deeper meaning, until it doesn't. And then John Goodman shows up to crap over the movie the way only he can. It feels like an attempt to make and then make fun of the kind of Coen movie you might distill for the purpose of parody, made by the only people clever enough to do that, who just happen to be the Coens themselves.
But then, I'm probably wrong, as I typically am. In any case, my interpretation made the experience of watching Inside Llewyn Davis that much more bearable, and got me through some of the more grating moments. That's not to say it isn't entertaining independent of crazy re visioning, just that without some greater reason to anchor the film, you quickly realize that your watching a movie about folk music and the exceptionally boring people who know longer produce it, because nobody cares about folk music. Or maybe you do, in which case this provides a more than loving tribute to this thankfully maligned and almost extinct genre (Mumford And Sons notwithstanding) that you're sure to appreciate. I'm still on the fence, but its a fence built by two of the best directors working today, so either side is bound to be a bit enjoyable. For what its worth anyway.