27 January 2014

"Explain the Cat"

I've had a bit of a mixed history with the Coen brothers' movies, and 1960s folk music isn't really my thing. However, I do like cats, especially ginger cats, so it was inevitable that I would go and watch Inside Llewyn Davis. And if it were up to me, the cat(s) in this film would get the Oscar for best feline performance in a supporting role. As it turned out, the rest of the movie rather charmed me too: it was the perfect film for a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon.

The film centres around a week in the life of the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk singer, who is trying his best to alienate all of his friends and family, as well as the population of New York at large. The other half of his act has passed away and Llewyn is left to make it on his own. The trouble is that although he has talent, he isn't very likeable, and his performances, mainly in the Gaslight Cafe in New York's Greenwich Village, seem to lack that special something.

As the film opens, Llewyn gets beaten up in the back alley outside the Gaslight, and then we see him waking up in a friend's Upper West Side apartment. In his hurry to leave for a meeting with his agent — all of his worldy goods, including a guitar, in his arms — he accidentally lets out the friend's ginger cat and, locked out of the apartment, is forced to take the feline with him. He heads downtown for Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake)'s place, climbs in through the fire escape, dumps the cat and heads off. Jean is not impressed when he returns later. "Explain the cat," she grumbles. It turns out that Llewyn has a lot more explaining to do, as his history with Jean threatens to affect her relationship with Jim. "Everything you touch turns to shit, like King Midas's idiot brother," Jean spits.

Matters get worse when the cat jumps out the window and heads off to explore the Village, although a day or two later, he finds it again, and returns it to its owners, Mitch (Ethan Phillips) and Lillian (Robin Bartlett) Gorfein, only to discover that it's not the right ginger cat.

The rest of the week continues in much the same way as Llewyn moves from couch to couch, friend (or acquaintance) to friend. He sees glimmers of hope in his career, and journeys all the way to Chicago to meet with a manager (F. Murray Abraham), but nothing really comes of it. He's a good musician, but not a leading man, the manager tells him. His relationships with his friends and even the cat(s) seem to follow the same cyclical pattern as his foundering career. "If it's never new and it never gets old, it's a folk song," he says in one of his sets. And for Llewyn, the song remains the same. He won't learn from his ways and it's unclear whether he will ever succeed as a musician. Nor does the audience really care much.

Despite Llewyn's likability vacuum, I enjoyed the film. I liked the music and there were some great performances, including John Goodman, an irascible jazz musician with whom Llewyn rides to Chicago. Mulligan and Timberlake were both good, but didn't have a lot to do. I admired Isaac's performance, but it was hard to get behind his character, and when the film ended, I was more interested in what happened to the cats.

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