Watching Ethan and Joel Coen’s latest film, which covers one week in the life of a fictional folk singer based in Greenwich Village in 1961, I thought about how the best things about Inside Llewyn Davis and the worst things about the film reminded me of their 2009 collaboration, A Serious Man.
Here’s what I had to say about that one at the time:
Ethan and Joel Coen’s latest film, A Serious Man, is a 1960s retelling of the Job story. The film is fascinating (as the Coens are wont to be) but not wholly satisfying. The cultural context and cinematic detail throughout are rich, and the terrible things befalling our protagonist are also clever and, at times, slyly amusing, but it is that character who needs a bit – just a bit – more of a response to these events to draw the viewer more fully into the film. Michael Stuhlbarg plays physics professor Larry Gopnik as an appealing but ineffectual man. That’s okay so far as it goes, but I want more. Probably I’m just looking for larger meaning where none is intended – and I do not expect the filmmakers to answer all of the great questions about human existence and theology – but it would be nice to have some clues about Larry’s interior life. All of that aside, the film is still worth seeing. Go and judge for yourself.
Inside Llewyn Davis is beautifully performed, Oscar Isaac plays the eponymous role, and many familiar faces and famous names fill out the rest of the cast. It is also impeccably photographed, and it is built around an achingly brilliant production design.
There are some vitally important themes introduced, too, about love and loss, about aging and death, about birth, and about what constitutes our responsibility to one another. But somehow these ideas seem like a series of glowing dots embedded within a maze of other dots, many of them attractive, but without a bit more connection, the pattern is less than it might have been.
I went to see the film with my friend Allison, who wrote to me this morning, “I’ll be interested to see what you come up with to say. I hope there’s at least a paragraph about how the cat had the most interesting storyline of the film.”
Here goes, Allison. I think the cat is the device that comes closest to linking the narrative dots and presents an embodiment of all of the themes mentioned above with the people in Llewyn Davis’ life – his recording partner, his lovers, his family, his friends – and the ways he sometimes tries to help them, sometimes doesn’t try to help or to connect, often hurts them, and generally fails them and himself.
The cat almost carries the film…but not quite…