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Left out in the cold

Inside Llewyn Davis is about a loser that the Academy wanted no part of

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The Oscar nominations were released on Jan. 16. When the ceremony airs on March 2, I'll be looking at the winners, all happy and shiny and standing next to George Clooney. But my heart will be with Llewyn Davis, the loser protagonist of the latest Coen brothers film, as he walks down a grey winter street in a thin coat, holding a cat he doesn't even like.

Inside Llewyn Davis, which follows a musician's dismal week in the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene, is a masterpiece of melancholy, a beautifully crafted anatomy of failure.

Unfortunately, failure -- no matter how well wrought -- makes Academy members jumpy. They seem to think it's contagious.

Inside Llewyn Davis rated just two Oscar nominations, for cinematography and sound mixing. It was shut out of the prestige prizes, and when it comes to the Best Picture category, the Academy can't even do that insincere Hollywood thing and say, "We would have loved to nominate you and your sad little cat, but we just couldn't squeeze you in." Despite having room for 10 Best Picture nominations, the Academy slated only nine films this year, which seems like a bit of a slap.

Add in the way that T Bone Burnett's rootsy music for the film has been overlooked -- really, how can you hear that soundtrack and not be harmonizing to Five Hundred Miles right now? -- and the anti-Llewyn vibe starts to feel positively punitive.

I could get all het up about this. But like many Llewyn lovers, I wouldn't actually want the film to win a big Academy Award. Inside Llewyn Davis shouldn't succeed, at least not in that flashy, gold-plated Oscar way, because it's basically a deeply suspicious take on success, or at least success as it's defined in modern America.

Despite being fairly winning themselves, the Coens are fascinated by failure. They've created a rich and varied loser-centric oeuvre, from Barton Fink to O Brother, Where Art Thou? to A Serious Man. The Big Lebowski is like a loser manifesto.

Llewyn Davis is possibly their loser-est loser, his failure being not just a byproduct of some other crazy character flaw but his defining feature. In the course of the film, he is rejected, passed over, moved along and abandoned by the side of the road. He is sucker-punched and sworn at. His shoes always seem to be wet.

Despite all Llewyn's misery, Oscar Isaac's restrained performance never milks the melancholy. The Coens are similarly strict. This is no romanticized tale of a scorned outsider, no edgy expression of fashionable nihilism. Inside Llewyn Davis is curiously careful study of mopeyness.

Llewyn is not a sacrificial loser, punished for the purity of his vision. It's true that he finds everyone else's folk music to be too cheerful, too clean or too catchy. When he plays back-up for Please Mr. Kennedy, an adorably cheesy novelty song that is clearly destined for radio play, his face is a comic study. But his stubborn anti-commercialism is presented not so much as artistic virtue but as sheer inborn contrariness.

And Llewyn is not a lovable loser, sweet in adversity. He's abrasive and self-sabotaging, perpetually exasperating friends, annoying former lovers, alienating fellow dinner party guests. He's a jerk, basically, as well as several things that Carey Mulligan calls him that can't be printed.

It's true that circumstances are never favourable for Llewyn, and he has bouts of freakish bad luck. The weather is against him, as the folksingers like to say, and the wind blows hard. But his biggest obstacle is his own damn self. He's a loser who seems perversely unable to change, which is another thing the Academy can't stick. Trouble does not strengthen him. There is no epiphany, no redemption, no life lesson. There is no character arc, just a sublimely depressing character circle.

I have to admit that as I was writing all this down, I had to stop for a moment and remember why I liked the film so much, given that it all sounds so incredibly sad. Partly it's because Inside Llewyn Davis offers not life sadness but movie sadness, the kind that fills you up rather than emptying you out. Partly it's because the film is sad but also very funny. And finally, it's because sometimes failure deserves a story, too (no matter what the Academy thinks). By giving failure such bleakly beautiful feel-bad form, Inside Llewyn Davis becomes a strange success.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 D16

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