"I don't see a lot of money here."
That's how Chicago record company owner Bud Grossman responds to a struggling young folk singer from New York City named Llewyn Davis after an impromptu audition in 1961. And that assessment could also double as the story of Llewyn's sad life.
Llewyn wants nothing more than to make a living as a singer-songwriter. And it seemed he was on the verge of achieving that dream, having already enjoyed one hit as a member of the duo Timlin & Davis.
Then his partner committed suicide.
And no one's really interested in Llewyn as a solo act.
Come to think of it, no one's really interested in Llewyn as anything.
The homeless and penniless musician floats from one set of acquaintances' couches to another each night. His friendship with fellow folkies Jim and Jean isn't helped by the fact that Jean is pregnant … and she's not sure which man is the father. Llewyn frequently stays with an aging Columbia University professor and his wife, the Gorfeins, as well. But that connection isn't helped when he lets their cat escape from their apartment. And even when he thinks he's found the critter, well, it's the wrong feline.
Which, come to think of it, is just about like his career.
Meanwhile, Llewyn's manager, a crusty curmudgeon named Mel Novikoff, hasn't done him any favors either. He hasn't promoted the album. In fact, he acts as if Llewyn doesn't really exist. And Llewyn's older sister, Joy, just thinks her brother should let go of his music dreams and get a job already.
On whim, then, Llewyn bums a ride with another struggling musician (Johnny Five) and an aging, eccentric jazz man (Roland Turner) to seek out Mr. Grossman and maybe jump-start his career.
But we already know how that turns out.
In profanity-strewn rants, Jean reads Llewyn the riot act about how self-absorbed he is. And she's right. (Not about the obscenities, of course, but her observations absolutely pin Llewyn to the wall.) Llewyn's sister also gives him good advice about that whole getting a job deal.
As for Llewyn, the best you can say about him is that he once visits his father, who is either unwilling or unable to speak to him, in a nursing home.
Roland says he studied "the black arts" of Santeria in New Orleans, and he threatens to put a curse on Llewyn. A line in a folk song says, "Lord, I can't go back home this a-way."
Jean repeatedly tells Llewyn he should wear two condoms and labels him an "a‑‑hole who sleeps with other people's women." She informs him that she's pregnant, and that she doesn't know whether the baby is his or Jim's. If it's Jim's, she says she'd want to keep it. Not so much with Llewyn. There's talk about another girl Llewyn got pregnant years before. And another guy brags about also sleeping with Jean.
A song lyric mentions a "red-blooded wife with a healthy libido." Someone jokingly asks if Llewyn is "queer" (because he has a cat with him). Llewyn lewdly heckles an aging female performer by saying (among other mean things), "Show us your panties." We see Llewyn in his boxers.
Because of Jean's uncertainty about her baby's daddy, she says she wants an abortion—and Llewyn arranges one for her. We hear that Llewyn's former musical partner committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
The film's opening scene (which is repeated later) shows a mysterious man in an alley punching Llewyn in the face twice, sending the singer reeling to the ground. Llewyn sings a song about a hanging. He accidentally hits a cat while driving. (When he stops he sees blood on the bumper and spies the injured animal limping into the woods.)
Crude or Profane Language
At least 55 f-words and about 35 s-words. God's name is taken in vain half-a-dozen times (four times linked with "d‑‑n"), and Jesus' name is abused at least that many times too. A dozen total uses of "a‑‑" or "a‑‑hole." One or two instances each of "b‑‑tard," "d‑‑k" and "p‑‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters drink alcohol (beer and wine) and smoke throughout. Llewyn asks others to share cigarettes with him.
Other Negative Elements
In a fit of self-centered frustration at the Gaslight Club, Llewyn rudely heckles an older woman from Arkansas who admits that it's her first time performing in New York City. And he rudely rebukes another older woman who begins singing the harmony part of a Timlin & Davis song while he's performing it. He asks Roland if the older man's cane would fit up his backside.
There's mention of a cat's scrotum. Roland talks of "purging from every orifice." And he later has a seizure, passing out in his own vomit in a bathroom stall. Johnny Five and Llewyn haul him back to their car; then, when Johnny gets pulled over and arrested, Llewyn leaves the still unconscious Roland in the freezing vehicle in the middle of winter to hitchhike to Chicago.
Inside Llewyn Davis was loosely inspired by one of the many starving artists (Dave Van Ronk, specifically) who flocked to Greenwich Village's folk scene in the early 1960s. And many mainstream critics are hailing it as being among Ethan and Joel Coen's best films. (They're responsible for the likes of No Country for Old Men, Intolerable Cruelty and Fargo.) But I can't help but wonder if even fans of these two brothers' often grim, spare and despairing stories will start to wonder what all the fuss is about.
Indeed, even Joel Coen himself has joked about the movie's lack of cohesive plot. He told London's Telegraph, "That concerned us at one point; that's why we threw the cat in."
As its title indicates, Inside Llewyn Davis is built upon a subtle, self-indulgent opening up and unpacking of its title character. Except that, well, there's not much of anything actually left inside Llewyn Davis.
Llewyn longs to be a successful musician—a longing that has consistently and repeatedly been denied. But in that denial, he doesn't seem to be learning much, if anything. There's essentially zero character development in his life as he faces one setback after another. Instead, Llewyn just keeps on using those around him in the narcissistic hope that one day something might change.
It never does.
One telling scene finds Llewyn hitchhiking back to New York from his failed venture in Chicago. Llewyn is driving while the man who picked him up sleeps, and he sees an interstate exit for Akron, Ohio. That's where the woman who (he recently learned) had his child now lives. The Coens focus on his face, and we watch as Llewyn considers taking the exit.
He doesn't. And nothing, it seems, is ever likely to change for him.
Maybe that's the point. It's the kind of thing artsy, indie flicks sometimes strive toward.
But despite its angsty pretensions, Inside Llewyn Davis remains merely a story without a destination, a bleak portrait of a bleak man's bleak life on a self-absorbed road to nowhere.