One thing is abundantly clear after watching “Inside Llewyn Davis”, the latest film from the remarkable Coen Brothers—they sure do love “The Odyssey”. So much so, that they’ve now adapted two versions of it during the infancy of this new century—the first being the Preston Sturges inspired “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” from the winter of 2000. That box office hit spawned a multiple platinum-selling soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett(on board for this venture, too), that also managed to garner the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002. This time around though, the co-directing siblings of Joel and Ethan, have left the deep South in exchange for the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960’s. In fact, it’s 1961 and right on the precipice of Mr. Bob Dylan exploding onto the world stage. And the Coens have done an interesting thing here in 2013, with their latest interpretation of Homer’s epic poem—they’ve crossbred “O Brother” with their 1991 film noir, Hollywood-horror show, “Barton Fink”. And they’ve even brought along John Goodman for the ride, as well as a title character that sparks memories of a young John Turturro. Of course, the end result, in typical Coens style—is one of the very finest films of this calendar year. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just plain marvelous.
Plotless? I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s been reported that the Coens were once concerned that they didn’t have one. Hey, it’s a journey—a musical journey—and that’s all you really need to know. And you might want to throw in a little “heaven” and “hell” parable into the mix too. Oscar Isaac is our Odysseus—I mean, Llewyn Davis, and we follow him as he performs sporadically, and depends on the kindness of friends for a bed, or a meal, or a ride. It’s a star-making performance. Carey Mulligan is former flame Jean Berkey, and I don’t believe she’s ever been lovelier—or better. John Goodman is Roland Turner, an obese, cane-wielding, drug addict—and he’s as brilliant and spot-on as ever. Justin Timberlake performs with unexpected nuance(as both singer and actor)as Jean’s husband, Jim Berkey. And the unadulterated glee at having “forever-Salieri”, F. Murray Abraham in the mix as Bud Grossman, proprietor of the folk club called “Gate of Horn”! Indeed, Abraham may have finally passed that Salieri torch after all, come to think of it. Oh, and there’s a wandering cat named Ulysses. I never said the Coens were subtle. But they greeted me with a welcome journey of complexity after enduring the puerile platitudes of “The Butler”. Yes, the Coens are among the most literary of our filmmakers—they insist that you read. And no, “The Hunger Games” and “Shades of Grey” don’t count.
I’m pretty sure that it’s time for me to ordain the brothers Coen, consistently the finest American directors working in film today. I make this bold statement on the basis of their healthy body of work(16 features since 1984), and the incredible diversity they’ve displayed for almost three decades now. And outside of the fact that I’ve clearly stated that they’ve adapted “The Odyssey” twice, they’ve made each completely original somehow. Does anyone have a more eclectic resume? No U.S. born director working today has consistently shown this level of quality over the course of this amount of time. In fact, if “Inside Llewyn Davis” nails it(and all odds point to YES), this will be the Coens fourth Best Picture nomination at the Oscars in their last five films. What a run. Has that ever been done before? 59 year-old Joel, and Ethan at 56, appear to be at their absolute creative peak. They even went without their standard cinematographer for this one, as 11-time collaborator Roger Deakins was assigned elsewhere. But, wouldn’t you know it, stand-in director of photography Bruno Delbonnel(“A Very Long Engagement”, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”)has created the most beautifully shot film of 2013 for the brothers. Do these guys have a Midas-touch, or what? So, the boys, modern-day Orson Welles’s that they are, have given us the great “Inside Llewyn Davis”. They wrote it, they produced it, they directed it, and they edited the damn thing too(under their fictional pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes). Is there anything they can’t do? Their canon is strongly suggesting no. Grade: A
next review up: “Nebraska”