not in our stars, but in ourselves
The folk scene back in the 1960s was a hell of a place. It might seem counter-intuitive, considering their association with all kinds of lofty social causes – civil rights, Vietnam War protests, women’s lib, etc., etc. – but folk singers could be right little drama queens. I mean, they’re artists. Of course they’re drama queens. And especially since they were all clustered in Greenwich Village – a hotbed of histrionics back in the day. The Coen Brothers don’t shy away from letting us see all that theatrical pettiness – but, as usual, they also let us see the real human emotion underlying each outburst. This is something that I’ve noticed during my attempt to get up to speed with their films: they’re never sentimental or mawkish, but they’re acutely sensitive to the psychology of each of their characters, whether sympathetic or odious. I don’t mean sensitive as in sitting up crying about them every night; I mean sensitive in the way of a finely tuned instrument.
In 1961, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a down-on-his-luck folk singer. He plays gigs at the Gaslight Café, where he also drunkenly belittles other acts. While leaving the Upper West Side apartment of a Columbia University professor, he accidentally lets out their cat and locks himself out. He is therefore, he feels, obligated to try to keep tabs on the tabby. This is all part of a cycle: before the term was even invented, Llewyn has perfected the art of couch-surfing, sleeping on the couches (or floors, or children’s beds) of his acquaintances and fellow folk singers. Occasionally, he sleeps with some of those fellow singers. Case in point: Jean (Carey Mulligan), who’s married to Jim (Justin Timberlake), one of a very few people who seems to like Llewyn. Llewyn has a talent for burning every bridge he crosses, and Jean is no exception. She tells him that she’s pregnant, and – since she can’t be certain whose it is – she wants Llewyn to pay for an abortion. He accepts that as fair, but he’s not exactly rolling in dough. Once upon a time, he was half of a duo, but now he’s a solo act, and his new record – Inside Llewyn Davis – isn’t selling. Since he’d agreed to accept royalties instead of a payment upfront, this is bad news for his finances. Thanks to another musician dropping out of a recording session at the last minute, and thanks especially to Jim’s kindness, Llewyn is called upon to record a novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy” – and accepts $200 for a session fee, rather than bother with the paperwork for a share of the royalties. He decides to use his small windfall to share a car ride out to Chicago, where he hopes to impress legendary agent Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). The ride is a nightmare: he’s traveling with a taciturn beat poet variant of the porn-actor thugs from The Big Lebowski (played by Garrett Hedlund) and jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman), who’s not a nice man. Grossman declines to represent Llewyn, so he hitchhikes back to New York in the rotten winter weather. He tries to rejoin the Merchant Marine, but his sister mistakenly threw out his license – so he’s unable even to ship out. Wearily, he returns to the Gaslight – and away we go again.
According to a Rolling Stone interview, the Coens thought that their little folk singer movie would prove to be unfilmable – until Isaac showed up. Thank the great Pete Seeger he did, because (a) we are all richer for this movie’s existence; and (b) Isaac deserves every scrap of praise and adoration he’s received since Llewyn was released. Between the writer-director team and their lead actor, they’ve managed to create that rare beast: a sympathetic asshole. In some other writer-director’s less capable hands, Llewyn would likely be some sort of dashing antihero: dark and brooding and complex and beloved by all swooning females and doomed to a lonely life because he’s just too complicated but it’s sort of noble, you know? In other words: a Mary Sue for all those male writers who think that’s basically who they are. The Coens are far smarter than that, and so they’ve created a character who is, as Jean repeatedly tells him, an asshole. And yet, it’s hard (impossible, I’d say, but I tend to be a bit of a swooning female every time I see Mr. Isaac) to hate him. He snaps at everyone who tries to reach out to help him; he makes people cry; he’s a selfish prick, basically. Still – he’s so sad. No one is trying to excuse such assholery, but we see why he’s such a brittle jerk: he’s homeless, his former partner committed suicide, his ex-girlfriend left him to move to Akron after they broke up (with their child together – something he learns from the abortion doctor he visits to arrange Jean’s procedure; the crestfallen look on his face isn’t far off from heartbreaking), and his dad is crumbling to pieces in slow motion in a god-awful nursing home. Unless you had the patience of Job, you’d probably be a prick, too.
Of course, he’s not all bad. As a cynical jerk myself, I saw a lot of myself (maybe more than a healthy person should have seen) in Llewyn’s cat saga. He worries so much about the cat, whose name he doesn’t even know, who’s yet another thing he’s obligated to lug around New York with him; indeed, he worries so much about the cat that it sends Jean into another fit of rage. That’s what you care about? she spits at him. Well, yes. It’s like Marilyn Monroe said: “Dogs never bite me, only humans.” I think there’s a certain type of sensitive introvert that finds it too bruising to care about other humans, who are all just constantly disappointing, and prefers to focus on relationships with non-human animals. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
I’ve gotten nearly 1000 words into this post without discussing the music in any real depth, but I don’t have all that much to say about it, except that it’s all very good, and that Isaac is phenomenally talented. It’s not hard to see, though, why Llewyn might not have found the kind of success that more restrained folk acts like Jim and Jean, or like that up-and-comer Bob Dylan, could achieve. His take on the folk songs forming his repertoire is quite bluesy, with more soul and vulnerability than Llewyn ever displays in his personal life – and more than was the fashion in the folk scene at the time. Everyone can see that he’s talented, but he’s not really with the zeitgeist. As Grossman tells him, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Maybe someday, Llewyn. Bide your time until the ’70s, when sensitive singer-songwriters were more fashionable. Work at an animal hospital in the meantime.
P.S. Oscar, if you ever read this, I know the entire internet is thirsting for you – but my love is true, dammit. Hit me up.