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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is witty but leaves audience with questions

Published: January 17, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

Much like the Coen Brothers’ classic “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which was propelled by a critically acclaimed soundtrack produced by T. Bone Burnett, their most recent venture, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” builds from the same foundation. With a soundtrack once again produced by Burnett, “Inside Llewyn Davis” covers a week in the life of a struggling folk singer, bouncing from couch to couch in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. While the soundtrack, which was released before the film was released IN theaters, brought in interested viewers, the film itself leaves them with sympathy for a tragic hero.

The film starts with a beautiful, quiet performance by the titular character in the Gaslight Cafe, which is received by light fanfare from the crowd. Davis then proceeds outside the club to meet with someone who calls himself a friend but then begins to beat him up over something said the previous night. This opening scene perfectly encapsulates what life is to Llewyn Davis; he is a very talented, yet misunderstood, artist who makes poor choices that wind up with him in trouble. As he gets himself together from the fight, he makes his way to a friend’s apartment to spend the night. In the morning after, Davis ends up letting his friend’s cat out, creating the main conflict of the story.

An orange tabby, the cat later identified as Odysseus, creates numerous problems for the troubled singer. From having to carry the pet around with him, to having to run out of a restaurant, to chasing the cat down the street after he had previously run out the window, the cat provides Davis with a forced sense of responsibility, a character trait that Davis struggles with over the course of the film. In interviews, the Coen Brothers admit that they wrote the cat into the script just to make some sort of conflict and move the story along. Without the cat, the movie would appear evident of an episode of “Seinfeld”: a film about nothing except a group of people living their lives in New York City.

Just as the cat makes Llewyn Davis somewhat responsible for some other living being in his life, this motif reappears other times throughout the film. Trying to find the funds to pay for a friend’s abortion after they mistakenly sleep together, Davis learns that the last abortion he paid for was never finalized and he concludes that he has a son living in Akron, Ohio. When making a trip out to Chicago to see an influential man in the music industry about promoting his solo debut, he drives past the exit for Akron, ultimately deciding to run from his responsibilities, similar to how he treats the cat, whom he leaves in an abandoned car on the road to Chicago after the driver is arrested and mistakenly takes the keys with him.

Like other Coen Brothers’ films, such as “Fargo,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” really draws from the talent of the supporting cast. While Oscar Isaac, who plays Davis, should be commended for his performance acting, singing and playing the guitar for the film, his acting performance is not groundbreaking. The supporting cast includes John Goodman as a boisterous, rude jazz musician and Max Casella as the misogynist owner of the Gaslight Cafe. Fans of Justin Timberlake will be surprised by the role he takes in the film as a fellow singer and friend of Davis, who provides a nice harmony in a rendition of the song “Five Hundred Miles.” Carey Mulligan gives a strong performance as the sweet, yet brutal Jean, who is the friend Davis impregnates.

Those who enjoy a film with more action or just a more apparent plot might not come out of the theater having understood the film. Not to give away the ending, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” leaves the audience with questions for the ride home, which is not something that everyone might want to get from a source of entertainment. Fans of past Coen Brothers’ projects will get everything they expect from this movie: great cinematography, witty dialogue and a cast of odd and unexpected supporting characters. And if the film leaves something to be desired, then at least the soundtrack can provide easier access into the themes of the movie and is beautiful to listen to while driving.