06 February 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

The curious thing about this movie is that it's structured like a short story: it begins in media res, and ends without any sort of resolution. There is some gesturing towards a potential development, but it's open-ended: this could be a climactic shift, or it could be just another thing in a series. Actually, I just realized -- (and I think it doesn't give anything away to say that) the movie's final scene actually strongly reinforces an anti-developmental plot. The final words are literally about recurrence and return; although it verges on heavy-handed, it's actually kind of clever. Anyways, point being, most of the sub-plots (and mysteries) the film develops are left in process, nor do we ever learn how they started.  It's kind of refreshing.

The movie depicts a few chaotic and adventure-filled days in the life of a struggling musician, evoking a thick tangle of struggles and disasters. The film treads lightly on the question of "selling out," and gives it some pleasing nuance (Llewyn may be revolted by the idea of joining a trio just to make a living, but when asked to play for a group of friends he angrily protests that this is his living, not something he does for free). Being on the academic job market myself, I couldn't help but relate to the underlying questions of career versus vocation, and the trials of a talented man who just can't seem to make it.

The movie is also, subtly, a musical. Each one of the performances does major work in developing the characters and moving the story along. And, it's worth mentioning: they are really, really wonderful. I was surprised to learn that the actors actually did the singing. Of course you recognize Justin Timberlake's voice, but I had no idea that Carey Mulligan had such singing chops (I vaguely remember her performance in Shame, but it didn't leave that strong an impression).

It's also a great cast. It's just fun to see those specific people gathered together. Two of the guys from Girls (especially funny, given this piece pointing out the double-standard in receptions of Dunham's character vs this movie's protagonist), Timberlake, John Goodman (who was surprisingly restrained, especially in contrast to his recent turn in Flight -- did I seriously not post about that movie? I had SO many things to say about it! Weird.), Garrett Hedlund, who I have a weird fondness for, etc. But the real star of the film, for me at least, was an orange tabby cat (variously played by a few different cats, as it turns out from the wiki entry). The opening segment, where the cat watches the city go by outside the subway window, is up there with Woody Allen's best in terms of homages to New York.

It definitely doesn't have the humor or the verve of other Coen brothers movies, but it's an interesting film.

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