Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 54 min.
Our advisories: Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
My days are past, my plans are broken off,
the desires of my heart.
The Coen Brothers have made a career at exploring the world of outsiders, mostly of folk regarded as either failures or living on the fringes of society—see Raising Arizona; Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou; and A Serious Man. The brothers’ latest film, loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, is set in 1961 at the beginning of the Folk Music scene in Greenwich Village. The story takes us through one harrowing week of the talented singer of the title, convincingly played by Oscar Isaac. Lacking audience-drawing charisma, yet possessing great talent, the homeless Llewyn bounces from small gigs to borrowed couches and an odyssey (yes, like O Brother, there are references to the Greek myth, one of them being a cat being named Ulysses). The latter is a bizarre road trip to Chicago in search for a break at the famed Golden Horn. The film is filled with wonderfully rendered folk music (including the perennial favorite “500 Miles”), and there is a delightful folk parody as well, all arranged by songwriter-producer T-Bone Burnett and sung by the various actors on the set, rather than dubbed in. The parody might lead you to think that this film is another spoof like A Mighty Wind, but rest assured, although there are humorous moments, the Coens are not out to compete with Christopher Guest. This film is a serious character study of a man chasing the dream that always seems just out of reach.
The very first scene, beautifully framed and lighted like it was from a concert film, shows us our outsider character at the Village Gaslight Café singing about an ultimate outsider—Davis, with great feeling, is performing the traditional ballad “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Whereas he himself is never in danger of hanging, he is homeless, dependent upon friends, even in a case or two someone whom he has just met, for a couch for the night. He is not on good terms with his sister, and his former lover Jean (Carey Mulligan) now detests him, calling him “King Midas’s idiot brother.” Still, she occasionally gives in to his plea for a night on her couch. Part of the humor that lightens a bit this grim story is his having to sleep on the floor when a naïve soldier, also singing at the Gaslight, has pre-empted his spot on the couch. Jean’s screaming at him in one scene includes the demand that he help her get an abortion because the baby “might be” his—or it could be her husband and singing partner Jim’s (Justin Timberlake). She just doesn’t know for sure, and of course she can’t ask Jim to pay for the operation. (I can see some persons of faith tuning out at this point, but urge them to stay with this slice of life film, it is so good.)
Once paired with a singer named Mike, the duo came close to success, the two cutting an album called “If I Had Wings.” But then Mike jumped off the George Washington Bridge, effectively breaking up the act. If the album ever made any money, Davis has not seen it, the head of the small record company telling him there are no royalties, instead offering him his winter coat. The broke singer does wind up with a box of unsold albums, but they are as saleable as they are edible. He is invited by Jim to fill in with him and another singer at a recording session for a song the latter has written “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a gentle spoof about space travel, so well performed by the trio that it might actually have sold back in the 60s. Davis asks for cash payment rather than waiting on a royalty, and he also arranges with the other singer for a bed for another night.
When Davis travels to Chicago and back, it is as a hitchhiker—and what a bizarre trip the first leg is, riding up front while in the back seat John Goodman’s spaced out Roland Turner, a proud jazz musician, continually insults him for being a lowly folk singer and not a true musician like himself. When Davis tells him how his partner committed suicide, instead of offering sympathy, the loutish Turner sneers, “He threw himself off the George Washington Bridge? Who does that? You don’t throw yourself off the George Washington Bridge, you throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge.”
Davis arrives at the Midwest folk Mecca the Golden Horn and finally finds its legendary founder Mr. Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). As Davis plays and sings his heart out, Grossman listens with the stoic expression that comes from listening to thousands of hopeful musicians through the years. There is a long silence at the end, and then he says, “I don’t see any money in this.” He suggests that Davis get a partner, not knowing that Davis still has not recovered from the death of his previous one. So, it’s back to Greenwich Village via hitchhiking.
Despite the cruel knocks and the often jerky behavior of the self-absorbed sponger on anyone with a spare couch, the film has some moments of grace, best exemplified by two Columbia University professors Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett). It is their cat Ulysses that, near the beginning of the film, slips out as Davis is leaving their apartment one morning. He manages to catch it, but the door has locked shut, and the elevator man refuses to watch it until the couple returns. So Davis has to take it with him on the subway ride from the upper Westside all the way down to the Village. And of course, it runs away again. He does not tell the Gorfeins on the phone this bad news, instead promising them to return it soon. Later he does find on the street a look alike, but much to Lillian’s dismay, the substitute turns out to be the wrong sex. The Gorfeins forgive him, accepting him later when he drops in to ask for a night’s lodging, even though they are entertaining guests. Invited to their dinner table, Davis reluctantly agrees to sing a song for the group, but when Lillian starts to sing the second part that belonged to Mike, he stops, angrily rebuking her, his pain over his loss still raw. Spewing a tirade of insults, he stalks out. We think the breach is final, but much later in the film, the couple receives him warmly again, thus showing not only his desperation and boldness in seeking help, but more so, the graciousness of what turns out to be true friends.
The Coen Brothers have chosen to focus on one of the singers of the Greenwich folk scene and not on the era itself. There is no mention or sighting of the young Jewish singer who arrived in the Village in 1961 from Minnesota, born Robert Zimmerman but soon to become famous as Bob Dylan. There is no character transformation to inspire us and leave us with the good feeling that persevering talent will win out. Davis is often his worst enemy, as we see in the book ended opening and closing that ends with his beating by a mysterious stranger. He seems destined to always be on the outside looking in. Even when he is so weary that he decides to give up his singing circuit and return to a job as a merchant marine (his father had been a well known hero in the maritime union), he fails because of a stupid act he had committed on impulse earlier. Llewyn Davis is a man of talent and artistic integrity, but more of a taker than a giver in his relationship with others, one more example of so many who walk “the boulevard of broken dreams.”
The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion is in the December issue of Visual Parables, available to subscribers. To subscribe, go to The Store and follow the instructions.