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Why 'Inside Llewyn Davis' is a laugh riot (in its super bleak way)

The Coen brothers' great folk music movie comes to Criterion.

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
The Criterion Collection

$39.95

What if we told you “Inside Llewyn Davis” was a laugh riot? Yes, “Inside Llewyn Davis”: the Coen brothers’ bleak chronicle of a folk musician (Oscar Isaac) in the pre-Dylan era who didn’t make it. Who literally had no home. Whose musical partner had killed himself and who couldn’t get a solo career going. Who dragged himself, with wet shoes, from New York to Chicago in a last ditch effort to save himself, only to get shot down eight seconds after he's finished his sad-ass song. Who was consigned to a circular hell of disappointment and aggravation. Who was the sadsack, beardo hero of one of the Coens’ least hopeful films.

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Not many would agree with us. We once showed "Davis" — newly out on Criterion home video, in a typically lavish package — to our parents over a holiday. They know the Coens, count “Raising Arizona” as a family fave and once bought the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. They still bring “Davis” up, years later, as that horribly depressing gruel-fest we made them sit through. On the other extreme, there’s a story we heard about a friend of a friend. He went to an advance screening back in 2012 and, while dressed in rags, found himself sitting next to no less than Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. The audience was silent, reverent. Pitt, who’d been in an arguably even darker Coens film, “Burn After Reading,” was laughing his ass off.

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Is pain and failure and shattered dreams funny? It’s at least as funny as the nicest character in “Burn After Reading” — the knuckle-scrapingly dumb, fist-pump-dancing personal trainer played by Pitt — getting shot in the face by a complete stranger. The Coens’ detractors write them off as chuckleheads who laugh at their characters, as though from a place of superiority. But they really laugh at everything, including one thing that’s truly not funny: all of us, good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, will one day die. Many of us will suffer before then, some far more than others. We will hitch our sails to meaningless, foolish beliefs: religions, relationships, jobs, our self-perceived talents, crappy bands that tour the world. But by the end we’re all equal, which to say dead and forgotten by the cosmos.

And that’s funny, in a way. Or rather, the only thing you can do about it — other than brood uncontrollably — is laugh. If there’s an underlying idea that runs through the Coens’ films — some more than others — it’s that people will always try to beat death and the blind luck of chance. In “Burn After Reading,” characters are punished and even killed for reasons they had no way of controlling, by other people they didn’t even know existed. “A Serious Man” is its sister film, about a crisis of faith: A practicing Jew (Michael Stuhlbarg) wonders if God has it out for him, but finds there’s no answer — even when the film ends with the one-two punch of a probable medical emergency and a tornado.

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There’s no god talk in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and the only deities repeatedly and reliably crapping on Oscar Isaac’s folkie are Joel and Ethan Coen. His every step is mired in difficulty, with brief, transitory moments of respite that do nothing to turn the tide of unrelenting misery. It’s gotten so bad it’s made Llewyn sour, which only makes it worse. He can’t help but snap at well-wishers, enrage ex-lovers and even, accidentally, insult the nice vanilla guy (Justin Timberlake) who gets him a sweet gig singing a catchily dumb song. He’s not a one-note crank. Every now and then you get a glimpse into real depression: He’s not handled the death of his musical partner well. When friends muscle him into singing one of their old songs, he snaps; he’ll listen to their old LP, but only in private. His suffering has made his music brilliant. But his songs are bummers and even the patrons of hip Greenwich Village folk joints gift him with respectable, not rapturous, applause. He’s cursed by both fate and his own terrible, cynical, caustic personality.

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The Coens always mix sincerity with mockery, even in their comedies, and even in their dramas, which are always at least a little funny. (Even “No Country for Old Men” is a mordant delight. Killing the closest thing to a main character off-screen, with only a brief, obscure glimpse of his corpse, is a great, great joke on the audience.) You can read “Inside Llewyn Davis” as a straight serious film, although that seems unbearably sad. So you can also read it as a hilariously bleak comedy, in which someone tries to bust out of his cycle of disappointments but can’t, because he’s not one of the lucky ones. Many of us aren’t. Life can be cruel, and it is short, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” dares us to laugh at the pain. The alternative, after all, is depressing.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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