There’s an unsolvable problem at the heart of the Coen Brother’s folk revival Greenwich Village period piece, Inside Llewyn Davis.
It has to do with its main character, Llewyn, a talented folk musician with plenty of drive but almost no luck, even less willingness to compromise, and so much pent-up alienation he could show up on an Antonioni set, light up a cigarette and feel right at home wandering against an industrial background without saying a word. However, the problem’s not that Llewyn’s unlikable and you can’t have stories about unlikable characters. You can, and Llewyn’s not unlikable. He’d been dealt a bum musical hand, no one cares about him, let alone loves him, and he’s justifiably unhappy. I sympathized with him immensely.
In jazz, you know, we play all the notes. Twelve notes in a scale, dipshit. Not three chords on a ukulele. Gee, gee, cee, gee, cee, dee…
The film’s problem is that to make Llewyn’s state of mind reasonable, you have to surround him with reasonably crummy people and circumstances. And for a film that’s about a time and place when people with guitars sat around jamming, creating music and feeling mutually joyous (watching each other’s backs, sharing homes, helping out each other’s careers) that’s a trap because you can’t have it both ways. Either Llewyn’s an asshole or he’s in an asshole of a situation. The film must choose, and it chooses to stay true to its central character rather than its setting. You end up wondering not why Llewyn’s so miserable but why Llewyn or anyone else wants to live in New York and make music in the first place. If everyone around you, with the possible exception of Dr Gorfein, is either tortured, as miserable as you are, a grotesque businessman, or a happy idiot, why not ship out with the merchant marine?
The natural extension of that is to further dilute the period, which is what the Coens tend to do anyway, creating an alternate form of historical reality (which is often what makes their films so great) that doesn’t feel like 1961 New York at all. The cleanliness of the apartments, everyone’s laid back approach to abortion, even the sense of cynicism that’s been draped over everything, up to and including a sweet scene of Llewyn playing a song for his father that ends with the old man shitting himself in his chair, these are our things placed in a foreign environment. Although that may be why Llewyn doesn’t play political songs. He doesn’t think music can change the world. When he does play a traditional song for a record producer in Chicago:
Much of the film’s comedy comes from moments of bluntness. It’s a bleak world that Llewyn lives in. It’s not the world of John Carney’s Once (2006), for example, where music made you believe in love. It’s a world where people play music not because music is wonderful but because they don’t make enough money to buy a winter coat, let alone drugs, and music is a cheaper substitute. Fargo be damned, but Inside Llewyn Davis is a darker place than being head-first in Gaear Grimsrud’s wood chipper, because at least in North Dakota there was merely a criminal element, whereas in Greenwich Village the whole world just fucking sucks.
Which is to say that the Coens do about as well as possible with a character and setting that cannot reasonably co-exist without one undermining the other. Inside Llewyn Davis may not be a love poem to Greenwich Village, but it’s precisely what its title describes: a look inside the soul of an artist who refuses to give up. That Llewyn happened to live in 1961 is a detail. He’s still alive, and many times, today.