One of my favorite comedians, Victor Borge had a joke about his hard-luck brother-in-law who invented soft drink: “Six-Up.”
That’s this movie. The story of a “near miss.” In fact, at the end after Davis’s set onstage at a folk club – the movie is set in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961 – the “real thing” comes onstage in the form of “Bob Dylan.” (In quotes because it wasn’t the real Bob Dylan – because he’s 72 – but an actor representing the young, “genuine article” Bob Dylan.)
I can imagine the origin of this movie idea, written and directed by the Coen Brothers. (Insistent originals, even down to the spelling of the name Cohen.)
“Let’s make a movie about an ‘almost’”, Brother Joel might have suggested to Brother Ethan, or Brother Ethan to Brother Joel, or for all I know, they both said it at the same time, as their career-long collaboration distinctly points to their working with a single brain.
It’s a tough assignment, a movie about an “almost.” It’s like a basketball player aiming for the rim instead of the basket.
A movie about a talented performer who is not quite talented enough, and, unlike others whose gifts may not be impressive but they succeed by other means, Llewyn also lacks that indefinable “it.”
I once saw a play in England called Man of The Moment (1990, written by the wonderful British playwright Alan Aychbourn) in which an actor I really enjoy named Michael Gambon played a relentlessly boring character. It was to his great credit that, contradicting the theatrical dictum “Boring character – boring performance”, Mr. Gambon, drawing on his prodigious abilities, was able make a boring character utterly and memorably mesmerizing.
It was miraculous. Before the audience’s amazed and delighted eyes, the actor created the most fascinating boring character you have ever met.
It is a similar challenge with Llewyn Davis. How do you make a prickly, selfish, thoroughly unappetizing character worth caring about? The assignment presents obstacles in both directions. If you make the character overly likable (and excessively talented), the audience will wonder why he didn’t make it. If you go in the other direction and make him passably talented with a personality wisely worth avoiding, who’s going to want to see the movie?
The same goes for the actor playing Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac.) I read somewhere that the after an exhaustive casting search, the Coen Brothers despaired of ever finding the right actor, until Mr. Isaac walked through the door (when the
Brothers likely simultaneously turned to the other and said, “Yes!” I think there is an interesting movie to be made about them.)
I can imagine the arduous casting sessions, actors being trotted in to read for the part, and the Brothers, time after time, going,
“The guy is excellent – Pass.”
“‘Sensational’ – Not the guy.”
“‘Impeccable’ – Who else have you got?”
And the frustrated Casting Director lamenting,
“What do you want?”
To which The Brothers responded (borrowing a line from film critic Anthony Lane’s New Yorker observation of the character:
“Very good, but not great.”
“Most directors like ‘great.’”
“We’re not most directors.”
Which is why I enjoy the Coen Brothers’ movies. (Except for their early overly violent ones.) The Coen Brothers unyieldingly make the movies they want to make. Are they dark? Yes. Are their lead characters always likable? No. Do they make movies their way, despite a commercial marketplace demanding the opposite – the standard American storytelling template being, “A character wants something and they get it”? They do.
In fact, the Coen Brothers approach and outlook is not dissimilar to the lead character’s in Inside Llewyn Davis. The only difference perhaps is that times have changed and there is a substantial, niche audience for less sunny entertainment.
I appreciate moviemakers who speak uncompromisingly in their own voices, making me a steadfast supporter of the works of the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, Nicole Holofcener, Tarantino (at least theoretically; I support his efforts, but the aforementioned issue of violence prevents me from attending), Judd Apatow (when he writes, but not when he produces) Woody Allen, and if he were still making movies but he isn’t, Albert Brooks.
You take a chance making a movie about a failure? I’m there. Why? Because new and challenging questions are brought to mind that would never arise watching a “winner” movie.
Why did Llewyn Davis want to be in show business in the first place? (There is a hint of an answer when Llewyn suggests to his sister that people who are not in show business are simply “existing.” But is avoiding “existing” really enough to propel you into the punishing and competitive pressure cooker of show business?
Focusing in another direction, the theoretical question comes to mind, “If you have it all – talent, audience appeal, fortuitous timing – does that guarantee you’ll succeed, or is there also some ineffable “X Factor” involved?
And then, going back to Davis, I started wondering,
“Is this guy a failure because he’s grumpy, or is he grumpy because he is unconsciously aware that he is missing that necessary element that is required to become a success?”
Such questions do not come to mind watching Legally Blonde.
Still, as my wife and moviegoing companion for the evening Dr. M complained,
“It’s a long time to watch a movie about why he isn’t Bob Dylan.”
I didn’t see it that way. I liked it a lot.
Fortunately, being a good sport, she drove me home anyway.