Sunday, January 26, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Inside Llewyn Davis

Joel and Ethan Coen break exotic ground once again with "Inside Llewyn Davis" partly based on the misadventures of folk singer Dave Van Ronk but the film is more concerned with a young man's will to create within an urban circus while nebulous forces conspire against him.

It is 1961. Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a Beat singer who has an uneasy rapport with The Gaslight's owner  Pappi (Max Casella). After Llewyn does a very striking Van Ronk number "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me", he goes out to see an acquaintance and is assaulted by a shadowy man with a hat and a cigarette.

Davis has no fixed address and he crashes at a professor's house. The house Tabby cat latches on to him and he is unwittingly locked out.

Davis takes the cat by default and haplessly goes from place to place, from his curmudgeonly agent Mel (Jerry Grayson) to his nasty ex-girlfriend, Jean (Carey Mulligan). Each experience is increasingly more deflating, but Davis resists the mainstream pull at every turn ("If you think music leads to marriage and a house, that's careerist, it's a little square, and a little sad...") and he takes a small gig playing backup on a pop folk song about the current space race. The song (with Justin Timberlake playing a romantic rival) includes silly baritone voice effects. Needless to say, the song is produced, but Davis agrees to record it without royalties.

One day, at his ex's house, the cat escapes; it is lost in the Village streets. After a deadly emasculating visit with Jean in which she says that she wants an abortion just in case she is pregnant with Davis' child ("Everything you touch turns to shit.")  he sees the lost cat at The Cafe Reggio. He returns the cat to the professor's house, but insults the family when asked to play for his supper. Mrs Gorfein (Robin Bartlett) begins screaming hysterically when she realizes it is not the right cat.

Taking the Tabby back, Davis trudges on through every withering look and happenstance.

John Goodman gives another excellent turn as a slimy and effeminate ne'er do well musician with an acidic tongue. Goodman's character of Roland is as rich as something by Flannery O' Connor and he is as toxic as he is comical in a gallows humor tradition.

 Taking a cue from their previous film "A Serious Man" the Coen Brothers expand their own brand on a Kafkaesque condition. Throughout the film, Davis faces identical apartment doors positioned right up against the other, knob to knob while the cat seems to personify guilt,  baggage and choices not taken.

Davis is surrounded and confined by innocuous musical pablum with little social commentary, and inept managers.

 At the film's end, Davis learns that the owner, Pappi (whose name could symbolize status quo as the word "pap" means "food staple") had sex with his girlfriend.

Thus  the noose tightens around Llewyn Davis' guitar with the shadow man cyclically pursuing him along with a passive orange cat.

The final joke might be the sight of one damp and dirty Davis getting kicked in the stomach as a young Bob Dylan takes the stage. But while this portrait is very much Coen and Kafka, it is also a stirring and pointed  journey of a man with a guitar, be he  Van Ronk or someone you conjure up on your own.

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