Sometimes people are just fuck ups. Inside Llewyn Davis is about one of those, a hard luck case who generates most of his own troubles in his desire to suffer for his own art. It’s a complicated thing that the Coen brothers do with this tale of a down and out folk musician in 1961 New York, because they create a character that you both root for but ultimately can’t really feel good about. He’s an asshole, a guy who uses people and refuses to compromise, but lashes out when the world won’t cooperate with that sort of viewpoint. And it doesn’t, repeatedly.
That’s the source of a lot of humor in this movie, which I would call a fairly broad comedy despite the fact that everything happening within it is portrayed as deathly serious. There’s a certain profundity to the Coens’ tales of the cosmos shitting upon one human being, and it allows us to laugh at the pains that we all feel we’re subjected to day by day. Sure, things are bad, but at least we aren’t this fuckin’ guy. Anything but couch surfing and self loathing, which seems to be all Llewyn can muster. As it is, we sit and watch, knowing through the hindsight of history that he’s a man living on the cusp of his entire way of life becoming the ‘in’ thing in the culture, but him increasingly wanting to get out and set everything he worked for on fire.
The thing that I found most striking about this long example of self-generated suffering is how out of sorts Llewyn seems with the people of the time. He is, in many ways, the avatar for modern man, and the America that surrounds him feels weird on all sides. Most people are squares, both of the honest variety and the secretly-square future hippies that bring him around to pat themselves on the back for having a poor artistic friend. But the counter-culture is just as bad, out of touch and irrelevant, burnt out beat poets and old jazz musicians, still living a 50s-style world that’s white and unaware and seemingly over the world. That the 60s are about to come and wash it all away just increases the irrelevancy of their pontifications about the nature of their existence, and our own ability to discount them. Fools, they don’t even see the tides turning.
Of course, that’s the trick of this kind of movie. We laugh at them and hopefully realize we’re laughing at ourselves, all of the foibles of being a person who has dreams and makes plans in a world that doesn’t care what you aspire to. Fate is bigger than any feeling we might have, or goal we might be working towards, and all you can do is ride the wave when it comes crashing onto the shore and hope that you have fun instead of getting dashed against the rocks. Inside Llewyn Davis is a story of a man who doesn’t know how to laugh, and so he suffers, but in a way that we are not unkind towards. He deserves it, but we wish him well all the same. That incongruity is a magic all its own, the kind only great storytellers can wield so deftly.