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Why Coen Brother's Latest Flick Makes for Uncomfortable Watching in a Culture Drenched in Positive Thinking

'Inside Llewyn Davis' is one long look at human failure with a lot of humor soaked in between.

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At the Q & A session following a screening of  Inside Llewyn Davis, a member of the audience asked lead actor Oscar Isaac what he thought would ultimately happen to his character, struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis.  Since the movie ends with young Bob Dylan taking the stage, wouldn’t Dylan’s phenomenal success and transformation of the folk music scene serve as a rising tide that lifts Llewyn Davis’ leaky boat?

Oscar Isaac laughed at the very idea.  “Llewyn’s stuck on the hamster wheel,” he said cheerfully, adding that maybe he’d wind up giving guitar lessons in Greenwich Village.

Nobody laughed in response. Even the suggestion that a fictional character would fail to make it in America is, apparently, deflating. It was a tough crowd for a Coen brothers film.

Because unlike most other American directors, Joel and Ethan Coen have always been interested in depicting failure. Their new film Inside Llewyn Davistakes such a steady, unblinking look at continuous humiliating defeat, it’s hard to see how the film can find an audience of any size, at least in the USA. Here, we don’t like to think about failure, though it stares most of us in the face every day.

We’ve been conditioned to believe in the power of positive thinking. If we can’t convince ourselves we’re moving Onward and Upward toward success, we’d rather not contemplate our lives at all.

If Inside Llewyn Davis weren’t so funny, none of us could stand it.

The exemplar of failure, Llewyn Davis claims to “fucking hate folk music” because he’s gifted at it, takes it seriously, and is getting nowhere with it, while other less talented and driven folk musicians do better than he does. The film’s set in Greenwich Village, 1961, right before Dylan’s ascension which will cause the general public to suddenly give a damn about folk music and start paying real money to hear it.  In the pre-Dylan era, struggling folk acts play a few clubs in major cities and eke out precarious livings if they’re lucky.

Llewyn Davis is not lucky. He sleeps on the couches of those who are barely getting by themselves, and during the day he schleps his guitar around the snowy streets of New York City, trying to manage the mess of his life. The mess involves his chronic homelessness, his stalled career, his dicey relationship with his senile father and reproachful sister, his tendency to impregnate young women who then need money from him to pay for abortions, and his other tendency to alienate everyone including the people who are nice and kind and generous to him, or who at least could help him get somewhere career-wise. And then on top of everything else, there’s the cat.

The cat is very important to the Llewyn Davis narrative. A handsome, expressive orange tabby that escapes from the apartment where Llewyn Davis is crashing, the cat becomes a minor obsession of Llewyn’s. He keeps losing and finding it, chasing and carrying it around with him. But for all his trouble, the cat he returns to its worried owners turns out to be a female orange tabby virtually identical to the cat he lost. “Where’s his scrotum?” shrills Mrs. Goldfein. In valiantly trying to safeguard the cat, or rather both cats, Llewyn endeavors to get one small symbolic aspect of his life under control. And fails.

The circular storyline of the cat is part of the overall relentless cycle of the narrative, which starts and ends at the same place, in an alley outside a folk music club where Llewyn Davis is getting beaten up. This beginning/ending scene was the inspiration for the film, according to Ethan Coen: “We were in the office, and Joel said, ‘OK, suppose Dave Van Ronk gets beat up outside of Gerde’s Folk City. That’s the beginning of a movie.’”

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