Pick any Coen Brothers movie and you’ll find the same setup, scene after scene: two characters sit across from each other at a desk. The desk is a businessman’s desk, a store counter, or a kitchen table, or maybe it’s some kind of invisible barrier to human understanding. In A Serious Man, Larry spends most of his time seeking advice from well-meaning and helpless rabbis at their office desks. In No Country For Old Men, Anton Chigurh plays mind games with the clerk at a gas station checkout counter. In Fargo, Jerry’s sense of security gradually crumbles as he deals with customers from behind the desk at his used car dealership. All of the brothers’ movies have a handful of these minutely choreographed desk-bound face-offs; their best abound in them.
Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ latest work, has its fair share of desk scenes; one could even say the desk-scene spirit permeates the entire film. The time is 1961, and Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a would-be folksinger whiling his youth away in Greenwich Village, is surviving day-to-day, gig-to-gig and couch-to-couch. His musical, professional, and romantic disappointments accumulate; he asks and rarely receives; the sun barely peeks through the clouds in the skies above him. America is one giant desk for Llewyn Davis, and the world is not his home anymore.
Llewyn is a classic type, a lost youth: handsome, morbidly ironic, quick-witted, and talented — and not much fun. He’s surrounded by a host of people at their wits’ end with him: a rancorous old girlfriend (Carey Mulligan); a weary sister who’s already settled down in the semi-suburbs; a father with dementia; a testy addict and a stoic chauffeur; a tightfisted music executive and a fed-up secretary; a forgiving Upper West Side couple who regret not being able to fill the shoes of his parents. Llewyn doesn’t really feel connected to any of these people: the one time he says “I love you” to someone, he says it like he’s reciting a fact; when a well-meaning friend tries to sing harmony with him, it only reminds him of past tragedies.
But the Coen Brothers are wise and buoyant filmmakers, and they never let Llewyn’s acid skepticism consume the movie. Instead, his journey — from uptown to the Village to midtown to Queens, from New York City on through bitter and unfriendly Midwest landscapes, and finally back to the Village again — is never less than the star of the show. His guitar is his one true friend along the way, and he’s not shy about picking a sad tune when he feels the urge.
It’s curious, though, that the Coen Brothers — filmmakers fascinated by eccentricity — were drawn to a story grounded in the music of the clean-cut, pre-Dylan folk revival. Young musicians of the era were just beginning to grapple with the weirdness and mystery of the American musical tradition, and the music they made was buttoned-up, well-mannered, and often emotionally unconvincing. There was little bite to their interpretations, but it was important that an effort to interpret was being made at all. The Coen Brothers understand the significance of this effort even as they occasionally tease the people making it (a nerdy Christian G.I., a goofy cowboy impersonator, an Irish quartet in fishermen’s sweaters). Llewyn is on a more genuine quest for authenticity than they are, but the record industry finds it more difficult to swallow up his music. When he visits a club in Chicago and sings a winning song, the promoter’s first response is, “I don’t see any money here.” You can almost hear Llewyn’s heart hit the floor.
Or can you? The Coen Brothers are hands-down the best visual stylists working today, and they recreate the look of mid-century New York City impeccably: the characters dress like they’re trapped in a magazine; the air is filled with Marlboro smoke and Chevy exhaust fumes; old subway signs shine with a dull winter glow. Working for the first time with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, they’ve have made a gorgeous and entirely wistful movie, an exquisite ode to discouragement. The music, to my mind, is another story.
Musical performance is the heart and soul of Inside Llewyn Davis, and scenes upon scenes are devoted to the cast’s modern renditions of old songs. But even Oscar Isaac’s solid, sensitive talent has less vitality than anything else that’s going on in the movie. Every live performance at the Gaslight Cafe sounds like it was recorded in a studio vacuum, whether or not it actually was; the actors sing traditional songs in a rarefied pop warble; no one ever really makes a mistake. When someone opens their mouth to sing, the movie doesn’t quite stop dead, but it slackens.
Maybe part of the movie’s joke is that such spiteful and disaffected oddballs can make music that’s so smooth and complacent. But I still wonder why Inside Llewyn Davis strives to turn itself into a Music Movie when the most interesting things about it don’t have to do with music, and the music that is there isn’t that engaging. Why not devote more of the film’s running time to actual recordings from the early days of the folk revival? Why don’t any characters ever talk about the singers and instrumentalists they’re trying to channel? Did they ever spend any time listening to the Anthology of American Folk Music or Woody Guthrie? The film doesn’t necessarily have a responsibility to introduce a new generation to the music of the era. But the musicians in Dylan’s periphery are sometimes under-valued, and if the soundtrack is getting such a huge rollout, why not take the opportunity to foreground valuable recordings from the past? Can’t the voices of Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Marcus Mumford alternate with the voices of Fred Neil, Karen Dalton, Judy Collins, or Ramblin’ Jack Elliot? Doesn’t Dave Van Ronk deserve more than just a song in the credits?
This is certainly wishful thinking, and the Coens’ decisions are understandable to an extent. The movie is a fleet-footed, melancholic fantasy more than anything else, and part of its charm comes from the fact that none of the characters are aware of the sea change that is about to occur in popular music. Too many historical references would have made the chronology fussy, and may have ushered the story into the land of esoterica. But the Coen Brothers and their music producer T-Bone Burnett created a wonderful cultural collage in 2001 with their soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? There, they didn’t rely on actors to carry the weight of all of the songs, and they invited a broad range of important contemporary musicians to participate. Although that movie is not as powerful or contemplative or beautifully minor-key as Llewyn Davis is, the whole project had a barbed and whimsical sense of nostalgia that sparked a meaningful revival of appreciation for American traditional music.
In Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie anchored by a struggling musician, it looked like the Coen Brothers had created a space for themselves to offer up musical surprise, wonder and unpredictability. In that regard, it now seems they’ve missed their chance. Still, no one can set up a subtle gag like the Coens can, and they keep getting better at it. There are dozens of delightful contrivances: classical allusions turn up right on the heels of bawdy jokes; there’s a subplot too clever to spoil involving a restless cat; there’s another long, deeply sad sequence with John Goodman that could have made a lovely movie on its own. The Coen Brothers have crafted a nearly perfect Odyssey. I wish that the journey could be more than just a sublime end in itself.
Or maybe everyone should have played their songs from behind a desk.
The 51st New York Film Festival runs from September 27 to October 13 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.