Writing this review puts me in a weird position. This being a critique of a Coen brothers movie, I guess the weirdness is appropriate. Earlier this year, I taught a class on “The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen,” in which I spent four months covering their films, their lives and influences on American and world cinema. These guys are giants of the film world and have a style so endearingly odd, meticulous and brilliantly cartoonish, we could only describe their movies as “Coen-esque.”
I informed my students that the new Coen brothers movie was scheduled to open during the duration of class and that a field trip was in order. Then the opening was postponed and the film played at the Cannes Film Festival instead. Now, finally seeing the new film from the makers of Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink and (my all-time favorite) The Hudsucker Proxy, I’m sad to say that few 2013 movies disappointed me more. Hopefully, my students and die-hard Coen fanatics can forgive me.
Oscar Isaac stars as the title character, a gifted but self destructive folk singer. He crashes at friend’s apartments, his life a transition from one couch to another. Mostly, he leaves angry people in his wake, as he burns bridges professionally and personally, with only his constant movement defining him. The film alludes that there were many like Davis, talented but reckless, directionless and under-represented artists who played in the same venues as Bob Dylan but never found his success.
This is one of the few films from the Coens where I didn’t care about anyone or anything I was watching. It’s easy to admire the faithful recreation of the mid-20th century music scene, the beauty of the music and the vividness in how, whether served straight forwardly or completely surreal, every scene has been shaped. But I can’t drum up any enthusiasm for Davis, who is played well by Isaac but lacks anything to draw audiences in, aside from being potently unlikable.
While Davis is surrounded by far more colorful, interesting supporting characters, they mostly feel like stick-thin caricatures. Carey Mulligan is woefully one-note as Davis’ shrieking, fuming-mad ex girlfriend and Justin Timberlake doesn’t have enough scenes to allow his amusing character to build, though his talents as a performer are utilized.
Like Barton Fink, the film takes a radically dark turn at the mid-point, tonally shifting from comic deadpan to horror movie bleakness. It’s not so much that this section doesn’t work as it simply doesn’t add enough to the film. John Goodman has a memorable bit during this stretch but other films have better portrayed the despair of the drifting artist. I was more haunted by the fate of a cat than Goodman’s character, which probably wasn’t what the Coens hoped for.
F. Murray Abraham, playing a no-nonsense authority with the power to elevate Davis’ career, has the film’s best scene. Like their equally off-putting, challenging but effectively lived-in A Serious Man, this comes across like a personal exercise on long-suffering of Biblical proportions.
When Davis turns down the monetary rewards attached to an obviously hit-in-the-making song he recorded, we’re reminded of Jacob in the Old Testament, exchanging his birth right for a bowl of soup. Considering the Coen’s sub textual references to Judaism and Old Testament figures in past films, the Job (or perhaps Jonah)-like journey of Davis is in place with their prior works.
But whereas I cared deeply about The Dude, Barton Fink, the well dressed killers of Miller’s Crossing, and the tragic, film-noir figures in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Davis’ journey left me disinterested. I wish the movie had more of his music, less of him.
Score: ** (1-5 Star Scale)