‘Llewyn Davis’ exposes the inner saboteur

“Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013). Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Sylvia Kauders, Ian Jarvis, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Jeanine Serralles, Stan Carp. Directors: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Screenplay: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Web site. Trailer.

Getting out of our own way is often one of the biggest challenges we face in attaining success. For whatever reason, we often become stymied by various fixations, blind spots and pet peeves that hold us back from fulfilling our aspirations – and our potential. That’s a problem illustrated through the experiences of a beleaguered musician in the Coen Brothers’ new period piece film, “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) leads a pretty unenviable life. The struggling artist desperately scrapes by while attempting to make a name for himself in the emerging folk music community of New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961. But, no matter what he does, he invariably winds up shooting himself in the foot, giving new meaning to the notion of “one step forward, ten steps back.”

Why all the trouble? Well, for starters, he’s seeking to build a career as a solo act, his former singing partner having inexplicably taken a suicidal leap off the George Washington Bridge. Then there’s his doddering, clueless record label owner, Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson), an aging, small-time producer whose grasp on reality diminishes with each passing day. And, with copies of his debut solo album, Inside Llewyn Davis, amassing piles of dust, the artist’s prospects seem limited to little more than occasional live appearances at the Village’s Gaslight Cafe.

But the biggest source of Llewyn’s troubles is Llewyn himself. Despite his capabilities for penning heartfelt compositions and delivering emotive performances, he just never seems to be able to get his act together, literally or figuratively. He bounces from temporary living arrangement to temporary living arrangement, mostly crashing on the nearest available living room couch. He’s perpetually broke, squandering his scant, hard-earned cash on things like paying for a clandestine abortion for Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), a fellow folk singer who he got pregnant during a casual fling (the second time he’s become embroiled in circumstances like this, too). And, even when promising opportunities present themselves, Llewyn inevitably finds a way to foul up (mostly with his surly attitude); such is the case, for example, during an impromptu audition for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), owner of the Gate of Horn, an iconic Chicago folk music mecca to which Llewyn makes a pilgrimage in a desperate attempt to land a gig.

If all that weren’t bad enough, Llewyn surrounds himself with a largely unhealthy circle of peers, such as Jean, whose relentlessly shrill tone frequently works his last nerve. The same can be said of Llewyn’s sister Joy (Jeanine Serralles), whose perpetually hypercritical attitude routinely undercuts any enthusiasm he attempts to generate for himself. He even gets grief from an enigmatic pair of road trip companions, eccentric jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his equally odd cohort, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). And, when it comes to the few backers who are willing to get behind Llewyn, such as his friend and fellow musician Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) (who also happens to be Jean’s husband), Gaslight Cafe owner Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella), and ardent folk music fans Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), he takes their friendship and support for granted, treating them disrespectfully, seriously overreacting to the slightest of offenses and generally behaving badly.

Considering the foregoing, it’s not difficult to imagine what direction Llewyn’s life will take. But, that obvious inevitability aside, one still can’t help but wonder, why? Even Llewyn doesn’t seem to be able to figure that out. However, with his career and his very survival on the line, he’d better come up with some answers – and fast.

Metaphysically speaking, one might justifiably wonder what Llewyn is thinking. From a conscious creation perspective, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to manifest the kind of wholly unsatisfying reality he’s materialized. Indeed, as Jean observes, he’s the antithesis of King Midas, one who manages to turn everything he touches into something far removed from gold. So what’s behind this?

While Llewyn’s motivations are never made completely clear, there are some hints. He seems determined, for example, to create his art his way, and compromise is out of the question. He takes his music seriously, and that’s apparent in his compositions and his performances. However, with the emergence of folk music as an increasingly popular art form, with a growing number of performers vying for attention, many of those artists turn to various contrivances – some of them rather gimmicky – as a means to distinguish themselves, but that’s something Llewyn is loath to do. As a consequence, no matter how beautiful his music might be, he doesn’t stand out from the pack, and, when people don’t readily respond as he hopes, he grows discouraged and embittered, sometimes even lashing out at the few loyal fans he has.

From a conscious creation perspective, this is a classic case of un-conscious creation or creation by default, the practice whereby we employ single-minded beliefs to manifest a desired outcome regardless of the associated consequences. In doing so, Llewyn behaves like the proverbial little kid who doesn’t get his way, one who opts to take his guitar and go home if audiences won’t accept his art on his terms. This is not to suggest that he should abandon his goals and dreams; remaining true to oneself, operating from a perspective of personal integrity, usually yields the most optimum results in the long run. But, by donning blinders and copping an attitude when outcomes don’t live up to expectations, one invariably ends up paying the price, as Llewyn finds out the hard way – over and over again.

As unfulfilling as this course of action might ultimately be, it can also be a significant life lesson that most of us need to experience at some point, and the frustrating, sometimes-painful consequences that go along with this is part of our learning curve. It forces us to assess, and possibly reconsider, our beliefs and motivations, giving thought to what we’re seeking to materialize, as well as to whatever potential fallout might come along for the ride. Such introspection can prove quite valuable, spotlighting aspects of our intents and our being that need to be altered. In this regard, it can be especially helpful at getting in touch with the role and impact of what author Caroline Myss refers to as “our inner saboteur” in creating the existence we experience, an exercise Llewyn would serve himself well to concertedly engage in.

In the end, all of the foregoing illuminates the tremendous power that can be unleashed through the conscious creation process. And this, in turn, sheds light on the responsibility inherent in managing this power. When handled properly, this creative force can yield miraculous results, but, when wielded recklessly, the outcomes can be disastrous. For his part, Llewyn needs to learn the difference.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a well-crafted period piece with a very distinctive look, mood and feel featuring solid performances, both musically and in the acting. However, it suffers from a number of shortcomings, such as underdeveloped characters (probably due to a lack of a sufficient back story), an unfocused storyline and tedious pacing, all of which undermine the film’s strengths. Moreover, the Coen Brothers’ signature style of humor isn’t fleshed out here as well as in their many other fine works, which is indeed unfortunate.

I’m not sure if the filmmakers have assumed that viewers are intimately familiar with the 1960s New York folk music scene (particularly the life of singer-songwriter Dave Von Ronk, the artist on whom Llewyn’s character is supposedly based), but the end product certainly comes across that way. It seems as though there’s a lot left unexplained that’s assumed as inherently understood. The result is a slice of life piece with too few laughs, too many left-field quirks and not enough satisfactory explanations, all of which muddy the waters of the plot and cloud the messages the film is attempting to convey. Fault the writing for this, something that seldom misses the mark in Coen Brothers productions.

In spite of its weaknesses, the film has nevertheless earned quite a few honors, including three Golden Globe Award nominations, with nods for best musical/comedy picture and best musical/comedy actor (for Oscar Isaac); three Independent Spirit Award nominations, including best feature and best lead actor; and four Critics Choice Award nominations, including best picture and best screenplay. The picture also won the Grand Prize of the Jury and captured a Palme d’Or nomination at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. However, the film’s performance in the Oscar nominations turned out to be rather anemic, having been surprisingly passed over in the music categories and picking up only two nods in technical areas.

When we insist on fighting against ourselves, we’re the ones who invariably get beat up in the end. That’s a realization many of us need to embrace if we ever hope to move ahead toward the achievement of our objectives. “Inside Llewyn Davis” provides us with a cautionary tale in this regard, offering advice that could ultimately prove valuable – as long as we listen to it.

Copyright © 2013-2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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