Let me say right off that I enjoyed this film, with one strong reservation. The Coen brothers know how to present their quirky charmers, and how to make us care what happens to them. Oscar Isaac plays a young folk singer in Greenwich Village, 1961, and the milieu is so perfectly rendered that I felt I could walk through the doors of those coffee shops and settle down for a cappuccino, like I did then. The music, the settings, the fashions and hairstyles, just the overall look of the film is “just right”, and I applaud that.
And the story is pleasing too, right down to the “reprise” ending. The title character is shown dealing with the kinds of problems a lot of young music hopefuls dealt with then: flopping at friends because you didn’t have the money for rent; betraying those friends by sleeping with their girlfriends; random sex with various other girls; paying for the occasional abortion; rushing to music gigs that paid by passing the hat around; listening to your married sister tell you what a bum you are, and assorted other humiliations. Oh, and finding and returning a cat that you let escape from your friend’s apartment. While Llewyn doesn’t really change as a result of these events, we see that his resolve to continue his dream of music stardom is severely tested, but not destroyed. Above all, the film depicts a time and place that we can look back on nostalgically because life, while it could be harsh, was also innocent and simply understood.
The trouble is, it wasn’t. The standard refrain is that America was “innocent” until the shocks of the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam; that young people were only just beginning to question middle class values, and stepped outside of them with great trepidation. But actually, the young people in New York at that time were already steeped in cultural and political defiance. It was called the “counterculture” for a reason. As an artistic and educational center, New York was attracting young people who were already openly hostile to a society that glorified war, racism and materialistic excess. Unmentioned in the film, but so prevalent at the dominant academic giants at the time – Columbia and NYU – was the fact that you could attend lectures in those classrooms, every single day, about how America’s future was going to be glorious because Capitalism was dying, and the imminent triumph of Communism would finally bring justice to this country, and to the rest of the world.
My point is that, even for a self-absorbed, insensitive louse like Llewyn, there was the conviction that art would change the world, and there was no finer way to live than to liberate society with one’s “genius”. All of that other “little stuff”, like using and betraying one’s friends, and living off others, was for the greater good. And anyway, an artist should be appreciated for what he’s giving to the “cause”.
I can’t overstate how the omission of politics from the folk music scene at that time, in that place, lessened my appreciation of the film’s virtues. But I think this reaction is largely due to my intimate connection to the world it portrays. Most viewers won’t have that problem, and should have a good time. The characters are rich and individualized, and the cast was perfect, starting with an electric Oscar Isaac. Only next time, I hope he gets to play a character with some backbone.