Saturday, February 13, 2016

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Inside Llewyn Davis" (2013)

Oscar Isaac
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Inside Llewyn Davis (2015)
Directed By: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Written By: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman
Genre: Drama, Music
Running Time: 104 minutes
Summary: A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.

The Movie

There are few directors as distinct in American cinema as Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, together better known as The Coen Brothers. Starting with their debut Blood Simple, they have been exploring the balance between comedy and drama with absurd existentialism and slapstick. Their tales of Midwest hospitality have made for one of the most distinct and most consistantly critically acclaimed filmmakers of the past 30 years. With few exceptions, every film they create is ushered in with a sense of urgency and desire to see what will be done next.

Following a gap after their Best Picture-nominated True Grit, the duo returned with Inside Llewyn Davis: a film in that focused on a folk singer in the early 60's as he navigated his aimless, miserable existence - only finding solace in the six strings of his guitar. In the familiar sense, it features a strong ensemble, including a stunning performance by pre-Star Wars actor Oscar Isaac in the lead role. With yet another collaboration with music maker T. Bone Burnett, the film was as much a tribute to the era as well as a scathing criticism of an artist's relationship to his work. It also helped that thanks to Burnett, Inside Llewyn Davis featured The Coen Brothers' best soundtrack since O Brother, Where Art Thou? (also done by Burnett).

The only difference between Inside Llewyn Davis and O Brother, Where Art Thou? is likely the impact of the film. While Isaac would go on to have a fruitful career, there's no denying the absence of acclaim that the bluegrass film from a decade prior featured. The soundtrack was arguably more popular than the movie and provided a resurgence for bluegrass for the few years that followed. Inside Llewyn Davis may have performed well, but its reactions were more tepid and slow to embrace. While having a solid soundtrack, the impact that it had cannot be seen, as folk music hasn't taken any major turn since.

The film maintains The Coen Brothers' track record of making compelling and strange work. With a great cast and soundtrack, it's easy to get lost in the cold cinematography and nitpick about how sporadic the entire story feels. However, it's still an achievement in a career full of them, as it captures the essence of creators and their stubbornness to embrace the outside world fully. It's a film worthy of acclaim among the duo's very best. However, most people are still coming around to it after initial tepid opinions. Maybe the fact that major actors in the film (Isaac and Adam Driver specifically) have skyrocketed thanks to Star Wars: The Force Awakens will give the film a second life.

The Campaign

The root of the campaign started with a concert. Seeing as the film is about musicians, it is a fitting move. The end result was a 101 minute concert called Another Day Another Time, which was filmed at New York's Town Hall and featured The Punch Brothers, Joan Baez, The Avett Brothers, Marcus Mumford, Jack White, Gillian Welch and Oscar Isaac. Along with additional making of materials, the special ran on premium cable networks to highlight the film's rich admiration for folk music. For those who wish to see the production, it is currently available on the recently released Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-Ray. The concert served as one of the first major pieces of promotion for the film.

From there came the acclaim of the cat character, of whom The Coen Brothers have admitted was a pain to work with due to its stubbornness. However, the bigger problem came when the film's central song was accused of being unoriginal. Following a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song, "Please Mr. Kennedy" was disqualified from Oscar consideration due to sharing resemblance to "Please Mr. Kennedy, Please Don't Send Me Off to Vietnam." The conflict was short lived, as Burnett admitted that he used the protest song for his basis, believing that the song needed to be in more of a Tom Lehrer satirical style. The melodies were also similar enough to create more than a passing glance.

Among its more curious moves was the printing of positive reviews. While this may seem like a harmless attempt to grab easy tickets, one particular take proved to be a little egregious. On Twitter, critic A.O. Scott published some thoughts (note: not a review) which were: "You all keep fighting about Wolf of Wall Street and Am Hustle. I’m gonna listen to the Llewyn Davis album again. Fare thee well, my honeys.” In a strange move, The New York Times published a $70,000 ad that featured half of the quote complimenting the soundtrack. The final product was the misquote over white text and a note mentioning it among Scott's favorite movies of the year. 

Did Scott approve? No. It isn't like he wasn't informed. Allegedly, he was asked if it was appropriate to print, and he clearly said no. While the choice to run content without permission is bad enough, Scott also took offense to them publishing a "modified tweet" (MT). He complained about how shallow it was for one tweet to justify a poster ad now. In a time where film culture has gotten used to cropping reviews for movies from fans on the social media platform, it is most interesting to it being done for a film that is being labeled as a prestigious title worthy of attention.

One of the other harsh realities of the film is that it was an independent film that suffered from lack of awareness during awards season. It did well in its small run, but had trouble appealing to a broader audience. For starters, many thought that it was one of The Coen Brothers' worst movies and that the lack of intriguing or nice characters was problematic. It was a challenging film, but one whose word of mouth felt almost exclusively reserved for critics. While the film maintained traction among this audience, most had reduced it to the movie about "a folk singer with a cat" by the time that January rolled around.

The Payoff

On the bright side, it wasn't a total shutout for Inside Llewyn Davis. Despite having one disqualification to their credit, they still managed to garner two nominations: Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing. It's a far cry from the desired goal in Best Picture and various other fields such as Best Original Screenplay or even Best Actor for Isaac. However, it proved that the film wasn't totally down and out. Still, the bum rush that The Academy seemed to give the film felt very in keeping with the tone of the film. Beyond that, both of the nominations lost. In a year with diversity, The Academy lobbied more acclaim onto the indie darling Her, which may have taken away some of its levity.

While this is exclusively an Oscar-centric blog, it does feel important to note another way that the film failed to gain attention. Joel Coen had set up a concert for the film in order to qualify its soundtrack for a Grammy. Speaking as how it worked for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it only made sense that it would work again. Unfortunately, The Coen Brothers had  yet another setback here with yet another missing nomination. By that point, everything was over for Inside Llewyn Davis and it was now stuck in limbo as either being underrated or typical Coen Brothers shtick, depending on your views. 

Still, the soundtrack and film have persevered in the years to come with Isaac's career starting to take off with several successful roles (though no Oscar nomination still). Though it may not be smooth sailing for The Coen Brothers, whose 2016 film Hail, Caesar! may have the great reviews, but is speculated to be one of their lowest grossing films during their career. The chances of seeing them at The Oscars again seems doubtful, at least for the near future. Still, for a duo who have managed to churn out some of cinema's greatest work in the past few decades, it is fine to have a film that doesn't quite click - even if this results in the final awards tally seeming more like irony than catharsis.

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