Much like the somber melodies that float throughout its 105-minute runtime, Inside Llewyn Davis will remain lodged in your head weeks after you and the film first meet. With Oscar Isaac's "Fare thee we-e-ell..." ringing daintily in your ears, you'll shuffle out from the grasp of the Coen Brothers' wonderland of gray, but you won't soon be able to relieve yourself of what is arguable the pair's best film yet. Llewyn's is a story so outstandingly simple — he's a man who's s**t out of luck, and not especially deserving of any. He wakes up, loses his friend's cat, plays some music, and wishes things were better. And yet his is the Coens' most invigorating and deftly human tale yet.
Llewyn Davis makes the bold, but practical, choice of never insisting that we love its hero. He's effectively a jackass, justifying all the waste he has incurred with the rudeness he showers on the majority of those in his acquaintance. But Llewyn Davis isn't the villain here, either. The villain is the industry, and all the uphill battles inherent to its machinations. The villain isn't Llewyn's substantially more successful contacts — an old pal Jim (Justin Timberlake) and new fellow couch-surfer Troy (Stark Sands), but the listening public that prefers their saccharine pop to his dreary drips of misery. The villain isn't Llewyn's resentful old flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), no matter how many volatile admonitions she might shoot his way, but the act of God surrounding their unwitting adherence to one another. And it's not even the cantankerous and foul Roland Turner (a delightfully hammy John Goodman), but the endless, frigid open road of which each man is a prisoner (if the film has one flaw, it's that this segment carries on just a bit too long, but that might very well be the point). The villain is the cold.
Call it all a raw deal. But the real dynamism isn't in the challenges that happen outside Llewyn Davis, but in the determined toxicity brewing inside as he meets each and every one.
But this isn't the Coen Brothers' Murphy's Law comedy A Serious Man — we don't watch a chaotic pileup of every imaginable trick that the devil can manage to pull. Llewyn is steady throughout, not burying Llewyn deeper but keeping him on the ground, with the fruit-bearing branches forever out of his reach. In its narrative, Llewyn Davis is as close to natural life as any of the filmmakers' works to date. Perfectly exhibited in a late scene involving a trip to Akron, Llewyn isn't a cinematic construct, but the sort of person we know, so painfully, that we are very likely to be... on our bad days.
Still, working in such a terrific harmony with the grounded feel of Llewyn himself, we have that Coen whimsy in their delivery of 1960s New York City — rather, a magic kingdom painted in the stellar form of a 1960s New York City. And not the New York City we're given by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Closer, maybe, to Spike Lee or Sydney Lumet, but still a terrain unique to moviegoers. A New York that's always recovering from a hostile rain, and always promising another 'round the bend. One that flickers like a dying bulb, with its million odd beleaguered moths buzzing around it against the pull of logic. There is something so incredibly alive about the Coens' crying city; this hazy dream world's partnership with half-dead, anchored-to-earth portrait like Llewyn is the product of such sophisticated imagination at play.
And to cap this review of one of the best features 2013 has given us, it's only appropriate to return to the element in which its identity is really cemented: the music. Without the tunes bobbing through the story, we'd still likely find something terrific in Llewyn Davis. But the music, as beautiful as it is, is the reason for the story. As we watch Isaac's hopeless sad sack drag himself through Manhattan's winter, past the helping hands of friends and into the grimaces of strangers, as we struggle with our own handfuls of nihilistic skepticism that any of this yarn is worth the agony (or that our attention to its meandering nature is worth the price of a ticket), we are given the rare treat of an answer. Of course it's all for something. Of course it's all about something. It's about that beautiful, beautiful music.
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In 2010’s Get Him to the Greek wiry British funnyman Russell Brand played a spoiled lush whose immature antics threatened his rock-star comeback. In the 2011’s Arthur Brand plays a spoiled lush whose immature antics threaten his billion-dollar inheritance. Greek turned out to be one of last year’s underrated comic gems; Arthur not so much. Why? The two films are wildly different to be sure but I submit that the biggest reason for the disparity in quality can be traced to one crucial distinction: Arthur is a remake and as such carries with it the acknowledged lack of creativity inherent in just about every remake not directed by the Coen Brothers.
And Arthur does what most bad remakes seem to do dropping what’s essential about the original film keeping what isn’t and wrapping it all up in a glossy generic heavily-promoted package. The storyline is essentially unchanged – to retain access to his family’s vast fortune perpetually inebriated playboy Arthur Bach (Brand) is arranged to marry a respectable woman he disdains (Jennifer Garner) but he jeopardizes his inheritance by falling for a girl of humble means (Greta Gerwig). Much of the soul and charm of the original film are gone however sacrificed for a succession of canned comic scenarios that probably seemed funny in brainstorming sessions (Russell Brand in a Batman costume? Hilarious!) but are considerably less so when rendered on-screen.
But hey – all the characters’ names are the same! And they’ve all been updated with contrived tweaks that these days passes for invention! Arthur’s acerbic English butler Hobson is now an acerbic English nanny (Helen Mirren); his African-American chauffer Bitterman is now a Puerto Rican-American (Luis Guzman); his betrothed Susan Johnson (Garner) formerly a dainty debutante is now a pugnacious high-powered executive; etc. Brand for his part has little hope of measuring up to Dudley Moore who scored an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the title character in the original. He does get a few choice lines and he manages to conjure a respectable romantic spark with the luminous Gerwig (trying her best with a character conceived as little more than an assortment of manufactured quirks) but his talents appear severely constrained by a script that can do little more than dress him up in zany outfits and hope for the best.
In February 2001 a highly regarded long-serving FBI agent was arrested for selling U.S. secrets to Russia over a period of 15 years; Breach tells his story as well as that of the man who spied on him. Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) the now infamous treasonist led a Jekyll-and-Hide lifestyle which the FBI would use to ultimately build up a case and arrest him. But first they needed a young hungry sly and innocent-seeming up-and-comer to gain Hanssen’s trust enough to just barely cause him to let his guard down. That’s where Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) comes in. O’Neill is just what his boss (Laura Linney) had in mind and she quickly clues him in: This is the “worst breach in U.S. history ” with Hanssen being responsible for countless American deaths and dollars and Hanssen’s a sexual deviant. But after spending long days by the agent’s side O’Neill sees nothing but a misunderstood man and wants to call off the mission. However after some more inside info from his boss and manifestations from Hanssen himself O’Neill is onto the cause even if it means putting his life at risk. Playing real-life people is much different from playing fictional characters because real people are extremely complex—neither exclusively good nor as in this case exclusively bad. That’s why veteran actor Cooper’s performance is so riveting and his acting so widely lauded: He lends so much humanity to a character he could’ve portrayed as a true villain. In fact his ability to humanize each of his characters—not only because he looks like an Everyman—is what makes him one of the best most credible actors of today. Whereas we’re supposed to object to Cooper from the moment he opens his mouth Phillippe is not supposed to be disliked. It’s hard not to the way he almost struts his attitude but the Crash star and former Mr. Reese Witherspoon turns in one of his better performances. The real O’Neill might not have looked like a male model but he must’ve been deeply conflicted and consumed by his mission and Phillippe conveys that much. However he still seems unable to hit some high notes. And Linney (Exorcism of Emily Rose) in a limited role adds sheer class and professionalism as is her career trademark. Writer/director Billy Ray will seemingly accept writing gigs for just about any genre (Hart's War Flightplan Suspect Zero) but he apparently has his heart set on nonfiction when it comes to directing. His rookie effort the ripped-from-the-headlines Shattered Glass evoked superb fly-on-the-wall tension not unlike Breach. Which isn’t to compare either movie to a documentary but both are executed rather organically and it speaks volumes about a director’s talent when he or she can pinpoint and articulate the intrigue of a true story as opposed to contriving a gimmick (i.e. camerawork or special effects) from a fictitious story to arouse viewers’ interest. Ray clearly has no interest in tricking viewers at all and yet Breach remains engrossing throughout. It’s the ultimate testament to the success of his no-frills filmmaking. It can be said that neither of the main characters is explored deeply enough but (a) that’s what books are for and (b) such is the constraint of the medium of (taut) film.
Four girlfriends head into their near-40s and wonder if they'd even be friends if they met today. Frannie (Joan Cusack) is rich and happily married trying to decide how to give away $2 million. Christine (Catherine Keener) is fighting with her co-screenwriting partner/husband (Jason Isaacs) about an addition to their house and Jane (Frances McDormand) is a successful fashion designer who won't wash her hair--and has a husband (Simon McBurney) everyone thinks is gay. The youngest of the friends is Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) who's single a pothead and a maid who goes through people's drawers. The other three worry about Olivia and set her up with handsome trainer (Scott Caan) but he ends up treating her as bad as all her past boyfriends. It isn’t until she meets Marty (Bob Stephenson) an average-Joe living in a messy apartment does she finally find some harmony. No Aniston isn't doing Rachel from Friends here although it may look like that at first. Rachel would never take a vibrator out of a stranger's drawer and well you know. More the actress revisits her Good Girl character adding some additional more hard-hitting layers. Some of the fights she has with Caan sound like they could have come right out of a spat she may have had with Brad Pitt. Oscar-winner McDormand is once again a wonder as a woman so filled with angst and anger she has no idea the effect she has on those around her. Keener too steps up as the screenwriter struggling with a failing marriage. In fact all the relationships these women have hit home mostly because this odd collection of stellar actresses seem to have a genuine and natural affinity for one another. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener has captured a world of cross-economic friendships that may seem awkward but comes across as realistic. She has cast her alter-ego Keener in all three of her films including Walking & Talking and Lovely & Amazing. This time Keener is a bit more hard-edged and frustrated and yet excruciatingly funny when she admits "I don't get SpongeBob." Holofcener has painted the men into the background very subtly but ultimately are unimportant to the friendships anyway. Some of the best moments are when the group is together chatting and talking over each other and that's why it's going to be unfairly compared to Sex and the City--girlfriends do get together in other cities too. Friends with Money is just an enjoyable slice-of-life for couples of any kind.