Directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Oh, Coen Brothers. What are we to make of thee? If anyone in modern Hollywood likes to confound audiences, and if modern audiences like being confounded by anyone, it’s the Coen Brothers. And while I can’t imagine this movie was a blockbuster, it got almost universally glowing praise from the critics, and I’m not even particularly sure why—even though I also loved it quite a bit myself when I watched it. Only now, after a few weeks, I’m trying to process what it was exactly about this movie that I liked, and all that I’m coming up with is the fact that, like a lot of Coen movies before it (but not all), this movie is a fairly strange film, full of strange, hard-to-digest characters in a hard-to-digest story full of moments whose significance is hard to digest. Of course, the Coens aren’t hard to digest in the sense of Park Chan-wook or something, but in a much softer, American sense. This movie reminded me a lot of A Serious Man, which I also loved quite a bit when I saw it in theaters, and largely for the same reasons. The protagonists are quite a bit different, the hapless idiot in the earlier film not nearly as directly obnoxious as Llewyn Davis (played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac—unknown to me until I recognized him from Drive). Both of these movies, though, put at their center what I believe to be the driving force behind all Coen movies—the absurdity of human endeavour in the midst of life’s faceless and uncaring caprice. It’s this disjunction between the hopes and fears of human beings and the random trajectories our lives can take that seems to inform all of their films (a challenge from my old film professor to weigh this theory against their two most puzzling movies—Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There—remains a daunting goal). And although Llewyn Davis is perhaps the least likable Coen protagonist ever, the story was detached enough from his personality that I didn’t mind following along to see what was going to happen to him.
Of course, the extra layer that I’m viewing through that maybe a lot of people aren’t is the fact that the songs in this film aren’t very good. I perceived throughout the whole movie, from the opening notes of the supposedly brilliant (but admittedly very nice little song) “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, a level of self-conscious parody, of the film basing a lot of its drama around Llewyn Davis being an honest-to-god artistic genius that the whole flawed world is too unworthy to appreciate, but undercutting the whole thing with A) the fact that he’s a selfish, weak, lazy person (and kind of an asshole to boot), and B) his songs aren’t that good. Within the first 5 minutes, the absurdity is bursting through the fucking speakers: a film about the nostalgic impulse to praise the genius and authenticity of simple, small-change, salt of the earth folk musicians in late-50s/early-60s Greenwich Village, with original songs, though “inspired” by Dave Van Ronk, written in fact by T-Bone Burnett and the fucking Mumford guy. I’ve heard a bit of Dave Van Ronk, and it was infinitely more interesting and vital and alive than anything in this parody of a soundtrack—and to the charge:“You should go listen to more Dave Van Ronk and then you’d see how faithful and inspiring this T-Bone Mumford soundtrack really is,” I would reply that if this movie inspires me to check out any record, it’s “Inside Dave Van Ronk,” not the soundtrack to this movie.
The movie itself, though, is right up my alley, the way it dwells on a moody artist and a sense of perpetual victimhood against an unjust world. The world is indeed callous and uncaring, but we never get the idea that this guy doesn’t get what he deserves, too. The outside world is callous and cold, but it’s also a lot more likable than goddamn Llewyn Davis. Justin Timberlake’s small role is likeable enough, the dopey solider Troy is a nice guy (if a bit flat), the old professors who take him under his wing are unbelievably nice, even the asshole jazz guy John Goodman is likable, precisely because it’s so goddamn funny how unceremoniously he desecrates every sacred cow in the movie, even the one legitimate sacred cow to Llewyn’s character: the emotional baggage he carries from the suicide of his former singing partner. And the coup de grace—the scene where he auditions for the big shot, F. Murray Abraham—where Abraham replies to his heartfelt, beautiful ballad, his perfect audition, with the carefully considered remark: “I don’t see much money in it.” There’s actually an awful lot of stuff in this movie that stuck with me, but maybe I just say that because I like the fact that there’s a whole subplot and metaphoric significance around a cat. Pretty great stuff.