Singer in the key of jerk
Set in the folk music scene in 1961 Greenwich Village – about a year before a guy named Bob Dylan showed up to change everything – the marvelously downbeat Inside Llewyn Davis is a portrait of the artist as a full-time jerk. The film opens as Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, Drive, Sucker Punch) is singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” to a half-full crowd in one of those grubby coffee bars where the musicians get paid via tips dropped in a basket. It’s a beautifully despairing song, soulfully performed by Llewyn – but all that grace dissipates once he steps off stage. In his personal life, the angry and self-destructive Llewyn wields his folkie purism like a club. He couch surfs around the Village, continually alienates his bourgeois sister, and has a barbed relationship with a married fellow folksinger (Carey Mulligan), one half of a duo with her husband (Justin Timberlake). It turns out she’s pregnant . . . and Llewyn might be the father.
Llewyn is a hipster-bohemian talisman to a rich older couple who patronizingly introduce him to their upper crust peers as “our folksinging friend” and occasionally let him crash at their place. He manages to let their cat out of the apartment one day, and this becomes a running gag throughout the film – a gag you’ll be grateful for, insofar as much of the plot involves Llewyn staring at the world with a peevish glumness because, despite his talent, his go-nowhere career is floundering from one disappointment to the next.
Inspired by the autobiography of crusty old folkie Dave Van Ronk, Inside was written and directed by the Coen Brothers, who have done a marvelous job with this bleak material. It was shot in a drab colour palette, and the soundtrack has been expertly overseen by T Bone Burnett (who did miracles with O Brother Where Art Thou?). The Coens have always been superb craftsmen, albeit with an excessive fondness for smart-aleck perversity; here, although there are some great black-humoured gags, the dominant note is of sadness and empathy. It’s one of their best films.
Hilariously sordid crime caper
Writer-director David O. Russell (Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook) has moved from controversial indie auteur to Hollywood insider – a progression solidified with his latest, American Hustle, which has a bushel of Golden Globe nominations and a good shot at Oscar gold. The film focuses on a pair of con artists: Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, complete with paunch and ghastly comb-over) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), two lovebirds who have perfected a sly form of banking fraud. Things are going great until they get caught by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who is tired of riding a desk and hungers for the thrill of being a field operative.
What follows, which was very much inspired by the 1978 Abscam scandal where an FBI sting ensnared several Congressman taking bribes from someone they thought was a Middle East sheik, sees DiMaso bully Irving and Sydney into running a large-scale con that will get him noticed by his bosses. Before long, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) is caught up in the action, along with some mobsters who want a piece when it seems that Jersey’s Atlantic City casinos are about to get revived with a $100 million investment from “the sheik.” Needless to say, by the time DiMaso thinks he and Sydney are in love, things spin way out of control in a deliciously messy whirl of lust, larceny, ego, ambition, and jealousy.
Part crime caper and part screwball comedy, Hustle is above all a showcase of great acting. All the principals do fantastic work here, including Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s estranged wife. Lawrence won an Oscar a year ago in Russell’s Playbook, and is even more impressive here as a ditzy, sexually electric woman who is, even on her good days, an emotional minefield. Funny, sad, undeniably sordid, and highly entertaining, this daisy chain of backstabbing, chicanery, and greed is ideal counter-programming in a season of sugary Christmas sentiment.
(Inside Llewyn Davis continues at the Odeon; American Hustle continues at SilverCity)