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Review: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

What’s Inside Llewyn Davis? Nothing

Carey Mulligan and Oscar Issac in

Credit: CBS

Above: Carey Mulligan and Oscar Issac in "Inside Llewyn Daivs."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the new Coen film, "Inside Llewyn Davis."


The new Coen brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis” (opening December 20 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas and Arclight La Jolla) is meticulously made, but is that enough?

Usually I need to see a Coen brothers film a couple times before reaching a final verdict because their films can sometimes be hard to read at first glance or need a little reflection. I‘ve seen “Inside Llewyn Davis” twice and I still feel ambivalent toward this tale of a down-on-his-luck musician. Oscar Issac plays Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer that seems to live couch-to-couch on the kindness of friends and strangers. He's bitter about his lack of success because he thinks he most definitely deserves it, at least more than the others he sees.

The film is a bit of a road trip, following Davis from couch-to-couch, and gig-to-gig until we come full circle but without any real progress in terms of story or character development.

The problem with the Coens' films is that they sometimes feel a bit aloof and the lack of overt emotion can make the meaning or purpose of their films hard to determine. The filmmakers themselves are often no help and in interviews you can never be sure if you can believe what they say or if you are being jerked around. At a press conference for "Inside Llewyn Davis," they dryly said, “The film doesn't really have a story or a plot, which is why we added the cat.” Hmm? Not very helpful. At another press conference, someone asked about the back story for one of the characters and they were at a loss. They confessed to never really thinking about back stories, that's something actors do. Then they laughed and said "wow, that exposes a complete vacuum in us." That might explain why they were surprised at how warmly the character of Marge was received in the film "Fargo."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: CBS

The Coens, Joel and Ethan, on the set of "Inside Llewyn Davis."

"Inside Llewyn Davis" an impeccably made film – well acted, shot with a bleak beauty, and boasting sharp dialogue. Yet I’m at a loss for why they made it. It taps into themes and tones they've explored before. Visually and tonally, it has the foreboding of "A Serious Man" but without the emotional weight of that film. It looks to the creative process as in "Barton Fink" but its central character is far less interesting, decidedly more shallow, and his experiences are far more mundane. The film also deals with music and suggests a Ulysses/Odysseus journey connection as in "O Brother Where Art Thou?" But the bottom line is that unlike all those other films, Llewyn is simply not a character I cared for.

Now I don’t mind a character that’s unlikable or unsympathetic, in fact I often favor films like that ("Taxi Driver," "Naked") but I do need to care enough about what happens to the main character to remain engaged in the story and Llewyn Davis just doesn’t do it for me. He’s a whiny jerk whose sensitive folk music is a stark contrast to who he is.

In the end, I can admire “Inside Llewyn Davis” (rated R for language including some sexual references) for its craft but unlike the Coen films “Miller’s Crossing,” “Fargo,” and “The Big Lebowski” that I can watch endlessly -- I have little desire to ever see this one again. It feels like the Coens are playing a practical joke on me, giving me something shiny and pretty but ultimately worthless.

Companion viewing: "O Brother Where Art Thou?," "Barton Fink," "Miller's Crossing" (which I think is their finest film)

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