Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Inside Llewyn Davis": The Cat Came Back

You can count on two things in a Coen Brothers movie: misery and music. The plot of The Big Lebowski involves kidnapping and extortion, set against some classic rock, an old cowboy tune  (“Tumbling Tumbleweeds”), and a production number inspired by Busby Berkeley. A Serious Man  -- a contemporary riff on the Book of Job – climaxes when an old-world rabbi offers as Talmudic wisdom the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.”  In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, some escaped convicts dodge a lynching and other disasters, while posing as a bluegrass group, the Soggy Mountain Boys. Though their theme song is “Man of Constant Sorrow,” there’s nothing much sorrowful about O Brother. Instead, it’s a rollicking romp, in which misery (a flood of epic proportions, for instance) is transformed into exaltation.

Perhaps the exuberant optimism of O Brother, Where Art Thou? stems from the fact that it’s set among true believers who have faith in God’s rewards, whether in this life or the next one. But in jumping from the Depression-era South of O Brother to Kennedy-era Greenwich Village for Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens have given themselves a more morose set of characters. True, as Joel and Ethan told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, the young Baby Boomers who launched the folk music craze started by immersing themselves in Southern roots music, of the sort that O Brother celebrates. But such troubadours as Bob Dylan brought to the folk revival not the religious convictions of the Deep South but rather a strong determination to get outside the middle-class world in which they grew up.

There’s some fun in Inside Llewyn Davis, notably a goofy novelty song called “Please, Mr. Kennedy” in which an astronaut pleads not to be sent into space. It’s amusing too seeing the Coens deftly parody some of the most celebrated singers of the pre-Dylan era, including Tom Paxton, the Clancy Brothers in their Irish fisherman sweaters, and the desperately sincere Peter, Paul and Mary. But the focus is on Llewyn Davis, who has something of the career of the legendary Dave Van Ronk but hardly his look or his gravelly sound. As played by Oscar Isaac, Llewyn is a sweet-voiced but hopelessly hangdog fellow who has a talent for pissing off his friends, the few he has left. He’s at the other end of the spectrum from George Clooney’s cocky charmer in O Brother: this is a man with real musical gifts, but one who creates gloom wherever he goes. We first meet him singing a somber ditty that begins “Hang me, oh hang me, I’ll be dead and gone.” Most of his other songs have something to do with farewells and partings.  When, midway through the film, he has what seems a golden opportunity to dazzle an important impresario, he chooses a dirge about the death of Henry VIII’s Queen Jane. What fun!

While staving off meaningful human contact,  Llewyn finds himself stuck with a big orange cat that has the annoying habit of slipping away when he most needs to corral it. Filmmakers know that cats can’t really be trained. The best you can do is have several on hand: the lethargic one willing to be carried around, the jumpy one inclined to run off, and so forth.  In some scenes, the cat was actually attached to Oscar Isaac with a hidden wire. If he was ever a cat-fancier, those days are over. 

 I’ve just been reading about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That classic film contained a runaway orange cat too. Did Holly Golightly’s Cat run straight to Llewyn Davis? 


  1. Probably not. For me, the Coen Brothers are hit and miss - and this one sounds like a miss to me. (I do love Fargo and O Brother though).

  2. Certainly, this one appeals to people with specialized tastes. My loyal spouse wasn't crazy about it. But I vividly remember Dave Van Ronk and the folk music revival, which may explain why I liked "Llewyn Davis" so much.