During a career of making films that are neither full-fledged satires nor sentimental exercises in nostalgia, Joel and Ethan Coen have perfected a genre that might be termed smartass nostalgia. For better or worse, a certain strain of cruelty often permeates the Coen Brothers’ distinctive brand of tragicomedy. Take, for example, Barton Fink, which won the Palme d’or, as well as a Best Director award for the Coens and an acting prize for star John Turturro, at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991.The eponymous character, a poor schlemiel apparently modeled after the Depression-era playwright Clifford Odets, never has a chance at triumphing in Hollywood and becomes one of the Coens’ most abject losers.
While another schlemiel’s fate propels the filmmaking duo’s typical blend of pathos and comedy in Inside Llewyn Davis, which premiered on Sunday at Cannes, their anti-hero, while explicitly labeled a “loser” by his peers and still subjected to numerous travails (the Coens’ male protagonists are often labeled “Job-like”) does not appear doomed to a thoroughly hellish existence by the film’s conclusion. Llewyn, whose Welsh moniker suggests a sly tribute to Bob Dylan’s own homage to Dylan Thomas, is a struggling folksinger in New York, circa 1961— a period just before Dylan emerged as the most talented, not to mention the most bankable, folkie in Greenwich Village. As played by the gifted Oscar Isaac, Llewyn is both an irascible cad who seduces any pretty female warbler within his sights and a vulnerable artist who valiantly endures singing for chicken feed at small Village venues.
Through the fun house mirror of the Coens’ alternative version of late twentieth-century history, the folk revival of the early Sixties is portrayed as simultaneously admirable, ludicrous and pretentious. Unlike Barton Fink however, which laced its ironic nostalgia with dollops of contempt, Inside balances good-humored ridicule with ample amounts of affection; even the grimy interior of the Gaslight Club, where many of the characters perform, is shot lovingly with the aid of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s fondness for desaturated colors.
The Coens, not surprisingly, surround this charismatic sad sack with a cornucopia of early ‘60s eccentrics. The bickering folk duo Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) dabble in moldy folk standards; they’re like two-thirds of a failed version of Peter, Paul, and Mary. Mulligan’s Jean, a foul-mouthed beauty who deeply resents her feckless one-night stand with Llewyn, is a quintessential combination of muse and femme fatale. Timberlake is solid as a genial, second-tier singer and Mulligan, who has delivered bland performances in most of her recent projects, is uncharacteristically convincing as a bitter woman with a taste for invective. Her rendition of Hedy West’s “Five Hundred Miles,” which she sings with Timberlake, even compensates for her painful interpretation of “New York, New York” in Steve McQueen’s Shame. And, providing the film’s most spectacular comic turn, John Goodman plays Roland Turner — a jazz aficionado with a gift for venomous bons mots and unalloyed scorn for folk music.
Llewyn, who shares certain biographical details with the very different folk-blues musician Dave Van Ronk (the Coens optioned the late Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of Macdougal Street), is a self-educated working-class guy who periodically signs up with the Merchant Marine to earn some cash. Stung by the death of his singing partner, he’s also an urban nomad forced to sleep on a different friend’s couch each evening. In a great comic set piece, he proves unable to even keep track of his neighbor’s cat.
Given that Inside takes place a year before the radical protest singer Phil Ochs arrived in New York—and at a time before the fury against the Vietnam War had surfaced in the mainstream— the Coens, for the most part, focus on luckless Llewyn’s personal crises, which include arranging an abortion for Jean, his nemesis and one-time lover. Nevertheless, the Coens are probably the only American filmmakers with the chutzpah to name check the American Trotskyist Max Shachtman in a commercial movie. During a juncture when the Old Left hadn’t quite coalesced into the New Left, the Coens also slyly allude to the career of Moe Asch, a lefty who ran Folkways Records but was quite stingy in doling out cash to the artists he signed, via the character of Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson). In a subtle nod to the political deluge of a subsequent era, T Bone Burnett, the film’s music producer, transformed an anti-Vietnam ballad, “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” into a toothless, but hilarious, screed against space exploration that Isaac, Timberlake, and Adam Driver perform with manic brio.
During a pivotal moment, the influential manager Bud Grossman (played by F. Murray Abraham and obviously patterned after the mercurial Albert Grossman), responds to Llewyn’s earnest audition with a terse complaint—“I don’t see much money here.” Grossman’s remark is a perfect segue to James Toback’s Seduced and Abandoned (which screened out of competition at Cannes), an entertaining, if lightweight, documentary on the collision of art and commerce that was filmed during last year’s festival. Teaming up with sidekick Alec Baldwin, Toback attempts to flog an unlikely idea at the Cannes Market—a new version of Last Tango in Paris shot on location in Iraq starring Baldwin and Neve Campbell. This flimsy premise allows Toback and Baldwin to explore the schizophrenic nature of a festival that embraces art but is in fact much more about the bottom line. Using Orson Welles’s admission that he spent ninety-five per cent of his time raising money for his movies— and a mere five per cent actually making them— as a departure point, Toback interviews directors such as Last Tango’s Bernardo Bertolucci, Roman Polanski, and Francis Ford Coppola, who remind us of an era when Cannes was slightly less enthralled with the almighty dollar. On the other hand, in one of the documentary’s most memorable interludes, producer Avi Lerner minces few words to say that he basically thinks that Cannes’ preoccupation with art is idiotic since the movie business can be reduced to an endless quest for sex and money. Almost every critic and director who attended Cannes in the 1980s and 1990s insists that the festival was a much less frenetic and money-driven event in those years. Unfortunately, the Cannes of the late twentieth-century is as defunct as the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.