Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Inside Llewyn Davies

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 23rd February 2014

Despite having grown up watching MGM musicals where the multi-talented stars could sing and dance as a matter of course, it’s still a thrill nowadays when contemporary actors suddenly belt out a tune, using their own voice in a way that elevates them above their Hollywood peers.

And so the revelation that is Oscar Isaac (Sucker Punch, Agora – I know, right, who knew?) takes the stage/screen as the Coen brothers’ latest schlump of a protagonist in this delightfully downbeat tale of a musician whose talent may be appreciated more by his cinematic audience than the record producers he so desperately needs to impress.

Llewyn’s gone solo – not that he sold many records when he had a duo – but what with keeping tabs on his friends’ cat and finding a couch to crash on throughout a bitterly cold New York winter, his lacklustre approach to getting back on the folk music horse doesn’t look promising. Plus, he’s in big trouble with fellow singer Jean (Carey Mulligan, as livid as we’ve ever seen her, and also singing for real as she did so beautifully in Shame).

As in every Coen odyssey, Llewyn’s everyman travails are resonant enough that any viewer would offer up their coat, but it’s the people he encounters who provide the spice in the story. Llewyn’s half-hearted attempts at living life bring him into contact with a series of amusing characters, notably stalwart John Goodman (seemingly having borrowed Javier Bardem’s toupee from No Country for Old Men) and Adam Driver from Girls whose star just gets brighter and brighter as he donates his lovely bass tones to an hilarious rendition of “Please Mr Kennedy”. Throw in a square, bearded Justin Timberlake who just can’t quell his inherent charisma even when he’s a supporting player, and it’s clear the Coens’ new guard is as brilliant as the Macys and Buscemis of yore.

Aesthetically, the film is a dream – a smoky, grey, 1960s winter peopled with period faces and dowdy costumes, punctuated by Llewyn’s brown corduroy jacket and Dylanesque stoop. (Indeed, much of the production design evokes Dylan’s record covers and there are other blatant musical nods to the era with mention of one character’s being stationed in Germany with “Private Presley”.)

While not as plot-driven as No Country, True Grit or Fargo, Llewyn’s road trip from one Big Smoke to another is engrossing thanks to its strong investment in character and the pleasure to be had from recognising the nods to previous Coen films. Accompanied by a delightful folky soundtrack, you’ll want to get inside Llewyn Davis’ world and stick around even after the film is over.

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