The Coen brothers have made a lot of great films. Greenwich Village has given us some great folk music. So why is this movie painful to watch?
The main problem is the central character, played by Oscar Isaac. He’s just, well, unpleasant. True, the same could be said of a lot of classic protagonists, from Travis Bickle to Jules Winnfield. But all great anti-heroes have something in common: magnetism. They’re either fascinatingly intense, or roguishly charming, or just plain fun to dislike.
Llewyn has no such charm. Seemingly convinced that smiling’s for squares, he spends most of his time staring moodily into space. Which makes it all the harder to put up with his bad temper, obnoxiousness, lack of respect for his fellow musicians, and so on and so on. The result of all this is that you don’t care what happens to the guy.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the entire film revolves around him. He features in every scene. The other characters, including his friends Jim (Justin Timberlake), Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Al (Adam Driver), hardly register. This wouldn’t be so bad if the story was up to much.
But as far as I can tell, the plot boils down to Llewyn trying to make money, sleeping on couches, and losing a succession of cats. Oh, and at one point the film turns into a meandering road movie about Llewyn travelling to Chicago. With a cat. This being the Coens, all these felines are obviously supposed to symbolise something, but I don’t know what. More importantly, I don’t care.
The film, then, fails to distract us from its protagonist’s flaws with either charm or a plot. All that’s left is the Coen brothers’ brand of dark humour, and of course, the music. Unfortunately, most of the jokes here cross that fine line between “subtly understated” and “non-existent”. John Goodman’s character has some good lines, but as he’s barely in the film this doesn’t help much.
As for the music, it’s clearly intended to be a large part of the film’s appeal. The Coens bravely show Llewyn singing several songs in their entirety. But while he’s a good performer, he’s not spellbinding, so this only has the effect of slowing down a narrative that wasn’t exactly GoodFellas to begin with.
We’re essentially left with a “character movie” missing a character. When a film is this bad, people sometimes joke ‘My favourite bit was the end credits.’ In my case this was literally true.
The credits were accompanied by a charming Bob Dylan song called “Farewell”. His performance easily beats any of the others in the movie, and I’d advise you to check out the song. While you’re at it, give the man’s first two albums a listen. It’d be a much better way to spend an hour and a half than watching this film.
Lead image © StudioCanal