THE random hairsbreadth between fame and obscurity is one of the topics which float through Joel and Ethan Coen’s louche and loose odyssey about early 1960s New York folk singer Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac.
Inside Llewyn Davis (15)
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Running time: 104 minutes
Star rating: * * * *
Handsome, gifted and sloe-eyed, but also prickly, destructive and self-absorbed, the character is based baggily around Dave Van Ronk, a musician who could never catch a break, and the film is set during a cold New York winter where he is dependent on the sofas of friends and strangers, since he has no home, no money and no winter coat.
Llewyn is trying to make it as a solo act after his previous partner jumped off a bridge, but while he is talented enough to make a living, quieting a room with his version of Hang Me, Oh Hang Me at the start of the film, he is unwilling to recognise or compromise on the kind of songs audiences want to hear. His irresponsibility is such that he can barely look after a cat that accidentally gets added to his problems, let alone care for his ill father or face up to the possibility of fatherhood.
Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play singing duo Jim and Jean, who have tried to look after Llewyn. Jim cuts Llewyn in as a session musician on his novelty space-race song Please Mr Kennedy so his friend can make a little dough. Jean is furious to find out that she’s pregnant with Llewyn’s child, and even more cross when he tries to borrow the money for her abortion off her husband.
Like Llewyn, the film drifts a bit, moving episodically from song to song. Fortunately, these musical setpieces are often the highlights of the film. T Bone Burnett has curated a great batch of songs old and new for the soundtrack, which also serve to showcase the moments when Llewyn shifts from detachment to commitment, even when strumming through a take of Please Mr Kennedy. Like the rest of the cast, Isaac does his own singing and guitar playing, a lot of it live on the set, and all of it accomplished.
The hero of the Coens’ 2009 film A Serious Man accumulates little over the course of the film except bad news, and it’s the same for Llewyn, although most of it is of his own making. He tussles with his manager (the late Jerry Grayson), is rude to the hostess when invited to a dinner party and heckles other performers at the 1960s landmark hangout, the Gaslight Cafe. There are more obnoxious musicians than Llewyn, including a heroin-addicted jazzman played by John Goodman, patterned after Dr John, but they are already cushioned by success. Jean identifies Llewyn’s problem early on: “Everything you touch turns to shit. You’re like King Midas’ idiot brother.”
If you like the Coen brothers, there’s little here that will disappoint, although Inside Llewyn Davis is too chilly and remote to embrace wholeheartedly. Nor does it become clear what has attracted cool ironists like the Coens to the chunky-jumpered earnestness of the folk era. But if the movie is problematic, ending on a wan note, the musical performances are well worth catching, and it took an entire evening to shake Please Mr Kennedy out of my head.
THIS WEEK’S FILM RELEASES
August: Osage County (15)
Star rating: * *
I HAVEN’T seen Tracy Letts’ original award-winning theatrical version of August: Osage County, but I have seen William Friedkin’s versions of his plays Killer Joe and Bug, two acts of southern gothic guignol which I enjoyed very much.
August: Osage County is also about a power struggle, this time involving a vicious, vindictive, pill-popping mother (Meryl Streep) whose daughters and their partners have returned home, not because she is dying, but because their alcoholic father (Sam Shepard) has beaten her to the grave.
Leading the way is a bitter eldest daughter (Julia Roberts, below, with Streep), her cheating husband (Ewan McGregor) and their sulky daughter (Abigail Breslin). The second daughter (Juliette Lewis) arrives with a new older boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) who is so obviously untrustworthy you wouldn’t let him babysit houseplants, while the nice spinster sister (Julianne Nicholson) surprises and queasies everyone by announcing that she is hooking up with her slightly simple but sweet cousin (Benedict Cumberbatch). Throw in his parents (Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper), and you have a film of such shrill theatricality that you may start to envy Shepard for bailing out so early.
Directed by John Wells, this is a laboriously unpleasant picture about self-delusion and inherited bitterness. It certainly doesn’t seem to have heard that Letts’ reputation is as a writer of oil-black comedies, not Eugene O’Neill tragedies. Consequently, everything is played out with a sodden deliberateness, as if something mythic were going on. No such luck. n
On general release from Friday
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (12A)
Star rating: * * *
Chris Pine (Star Trek) is the latest to play Tom Clancy’s popular patriot hero, following Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck. Rebooted back to his youthful origins as an economics student and then war hero, he’s recruited by Kevin Costner into the CIA, and despatched to Moscow for his first assignment. Kenneth Branagh does double duty here as director and the villain of the piece, a Russian oligarch called Viktor who eyes up American financial markets and Ryan’s girlfriend (Keira Knightley). All the Jason Bourne fights, car chases, topical nods towards economic fearfulness and spy games and bomb countdowns are crisply executed, but this is a pretty average action film, made slightly better by an earnest Pine, and more fun by Branagh and his wodka-sloshed accent.
On general release from Friday.
Grudge Match (12A)
Star rating: * * *
In the red corner it’s Sylvester Stallone, in the blue we have Robert De Niro as longtime boxing rivals who decide to come out of retirement after 30 years and slug it out one last time. Stallone is being trained by his wisecracking old trainer (Alan Arkin), De Niro by his long lost son (Jon Bernthal), and both are pretty game when faced with a comedy punch drunk on its own silliness.
The jokes are mostly cheap ones about Ageing Bulls: De Niro owns a car dealership, and has a stand-up nightclub act like Jake LaMotta’s, while the former Rocky has to be restrained from pummelling a side of beef in an abattoir. “We’re just here to buy a little dinner, you don’t have to punch everything,” counsels Arkin. “And it’s unsanitary.”
On general release from Friday.