The Coen Brothers are, hands down, among the greatest film directors working today. Which has two effects. Firstly, nobody’s liable to knock their work when it’s not quite up to snuff. Secondly, they need to be held to higher standards than their peers.
Their latest, a 1950s-set Hollywood satire, tries so hard to be all-singing and all-dancing that, often, you can only see the effort. In Inside Llewyn Davis, on paper the most irritating of all their films, it barely looked like they were trying at all. The results were wonderful.
Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a studio fixer who, incidentally, would make a great film noir character. Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the lead actor in the eponymous epic, has been kidnapped and Mannix’s attempts to find him allow the Coens to hopscotch across the backlot, taking in amusing snippets from movies of all stripes. Among the highlights are a Gene Kelly-style musical, in which Channing Tatum sings a show-stopping (and telling) “No Dames”; Ralph Fiennes’ pretentious melodrama which finds itself saddled with a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich); and Scarlett Johannson as a mermaid-tailed showgirl who talks like a New York cabbie.
Away from set, however, the film feels more laboured than labour of love. There’s no propulsion, no jeopardy and not enough laughs. Even in a frothy comedy, there’s only so much whimsy you can take before you yearn for something more substantial. The irony is that the Coens’ best work offers both.
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