My name is Jonah Bromwich and I live in New York City and write about music, books, movies, random pop culture, and sometimes, the world. I started this blog about a week before I graduated college in 2011. As of now it's for any thoughts that I feel are worthy of blogdom. I will try not to write about things I know nothing about.
Don’t be surprised if you come out of the Coen brother’s newest movie a little bit confused. Sure you understand that the chronology was switched around, that we are ending where we started. But if that’s the case, then why did we just have to sit through two hours of movie?
Of course, many movies these days play around with chronology. But not many of them are quite so empty as Inside Llweyn Davis, the brothers’ second film to attempts to sneak the Odyssey into a music-centric period piece. Unlike the previous attempt, O Brother Where Art Thou (200), the new movie is almost entirely directionless. Its eponymous protagonist, played competently by Oscar Isaac, is a talented singer who can’t seem to find any success. He barges around various apartments in New York City, relying on the charity of friends and strangers alike, and refusing to confront an increasingly messy life.
Though Davis is a full-blooded character, sweet and quick-tempered, he isn’t given much to do. He’s just, as he puts it, “existing,” and his existence itself isn’t compelling enough to rope a viewer in for two hours. The beginning of the movie is fun—it’s great to see Davis running around sixties New York, chasing cats, getting yelled at by a one-note Carey Mulligan and playing music. (I’m generally a fan of Mulligan but either she’s not at her best here, or has just been given a rote part to play—she basically just curses and sulks a bunch, with a Coen brothers snap to her dialogue that feels like a parody of the brothers’ better movies. She’s angry at Davis for the entire movie until suddenly she’s not, and there seems to be no particular reason why her feelings change). The set details are perfect and the movie looks great; and the songs are lovely and fun to hear. What’s best about the opening is how perfectly vivid the Coens manage to render the period; it transcends Mad Men’s vintage stuffiness and makes the people of mid-century Greenwich Village come alive.
But when Davis takes a trip to Chicago, (mostly to see if his solo record has reached an influential business guy, though his departure is abrupt and somewhat nonsensical) the movie loses its thread entirely. John Goodman and Garret Hedlund are not elements of the story but cartoons. (Goodman is funny and distracting. Hedlund is atrocious, a laughable stereotype. A shot in which he stands posed against a gas station looks to be taken from Beat School 101—it’s not the only time in which the movie seems like a parody of itself.)
As Davis’s journey becomes more futile, we become less interested. This is a function of a meandering second half that sees him with no goal—the climax of the movie passes, unremarked upon, and the movie keeps on going. Fans of the movie have either tried to ascribe meaning to the emptiness of the second half or simply lauded the movie for its honesty in showing what the life of a real musician is like. But that honesty comes at the expense of a clear narrative and as the movie starts to lag, its charms fall away.
Notes: Clues to the movie’s aimlessness can be found in this New York Times article, which airs out the creation of a slapdash plot built around period cues from Dave Von Ronk’s memoir and hints that the Coens may have been far more focused on soundtrack (great) and setting (great) than they were on story.