Top 100 American Movie Quotes of the 21st Century: #55

The actor:Oscar Isaac
The character:Llewyn Davis
The film:Inside Llewyn Davis
The quote:“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

Think of your favorite Coen Brothers line, or maybe the best Coen Brothers line (presumably a more difficult project, given that I think I could do a top 100 Coens Quotes project and not have to stretch myself too far). It’s probably not like this one. For the sake of surprise, I’ll leave out their 21st Century films, though that leaves us more than enough to play with. The best lines in Fargo are almost universally about the inner expressions of their characters. Marge, “And here you are, and it’s a beautiful day.” From Barton Fink, the unrepentant strangeness of “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” From Raising Arizona, the play on The Mikado with “We released ourselves on our own recognizance.” The only great Coens line from the 20th Century that really seems to pair with Inside Llewyn Davis is from The Big Lebowski. “The Dude abides,” Sam Elliott tells us. It’s a line which sums up the movie and its ideas with memorable succinctness. (The Coens, often as not, are actually into the whole brevity thing.) Inside Llewyn Davis has moments I love much more than this one. Heck, I love most of the movie and only like this line. But I appreciate the neatness of this line, well-written and expressed with the cleanly authority which Llewyn only ever aspires to and despairs of throughout the rest of the film.

Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t have Andrew Lloyd Webber disease, or, for the movie/TV people reading this, Aaron Sorkin syndrome. Webber frequently needs to present a bad singer or performer (Carlotta, Magaldi) to prove how far an upstart outshines them (Christine, Evita). Aaron Sorkin often needs to set up a joke by using a dimwit to lob up a rejoinder. Inside Llewyn Davis is about a genuinely talented performer who just cannot make it big. He’s been part of a reasonably successful folk duo. He does backup vocals and guitar on a novelty song that I’d put on the same genius level as “Dominic, the Italian Christmas Donkey.” His solo performances are terrific. “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” aches with his vocals. “The Death of Queen Jane” rings tragically in that empty venue. And none of it gets him anywhere. Llewyn Davis is the kind of man who could, and across the stretch of the movie, probably does lose ten coin tosses in a row. He knows what he’s singing, he knows its history and its import. He is not someone with a pretty voice and a functional knowledge of acoustic guitar who drifts into town and out again. He’s someone who gets the heart of what folk music is. Inside Llewyn Davis is a brilliant success because it understands what it means when folk music is deeply felt in performer and audience alike. But Llewyn Davis, wise as he is, cannot make the out-of-time music love him back.

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