It is winter of 1961 in New York, an apt setting for the sad tale of Llewyn Davis, a homeless folk singer with no prospects. Talented enough to believe he deserves success, but not talented enough to attain it, Llewyn is an American Dreamer with a head full of songs and shoes wet with slush. As he trudges from one disappointment to the next, the grey Manhattan sky bearing down on him like a shroud, you come to love him for his conviction, even though you suspect – this is a Coen brothers movie after all – that no song will save him. He will fade like the last frame, returning invisible to the crowds from which Inside Llewyn Davis first delivered him, his only moment in the spotlight as a character in a movie about living with disappointment.
The Dreamers are everywhere this holiday season at the movies – in Nebraska and American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, even in the CGI-generated Cretaceous era of Walking with Dinosaurs – the gap between their fantasies of glorious fulfilment and rude reckoning a perfect backdrop to the predictable seasonal postpartum crash of waking up to bills, the long winter, and the ashen reflection of exactly the same person staring back at you from the bathroom mirror: one day older, but still you. Even the dreams will evaporate in the cold light of day.
But this is another function of the movies, isn’t it? To reflect the dreamer in us and indulge such needs, even if it means addressing the hollow nature of the reverie. Just as Llewyn will be swept into cultural oblivion by the arrival of Bob Dylan, and the beasts in Walking with Dinosaurs are marching triumphantly toward extinction, all these contemporary movie dreamers are compelled to wake up: Jordan Belfort, the arrogant frat-boy junk-stock trader (played with repulsive relish by Leonardo DiCaprio) who gets rock-star rich and famous in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, loses everything but the tale he tells. Woody Grant, the delusional pensioner played by Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, is on a road trip to collect a prize that probably doesn’t exist, and the scams perpetrated by the ensemble of disco-era grotesques in American Hustle are like the outrageous perm jobs, comb-overs, polyester jumpsuits and electric-purple nail polish everybody favours: a flash cover for a void inside, an outrageously bold fashion statement that prays that style will blind us to the absence of substance. Indeed, American Hustle’s working title was American Bullshit, a phrase that might well apply to all these movies, and not in a derogatory sense. Bull is the engine that lends the spirit wings in these films, it’s what lifts these people above the muck and slush and bad hair and wet shoes. Even the most cheerful of these tales of wishful fantasy, Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, is an exercise in tap-dancing on the volcano’s rim: If Walter wasn’t so terminally unhappy, if he wasn’t Llewyn Davis on a stronger dose of antidepressants, he wouldn’t need a secret life. Without the bull, these people would have no movie to show us, and we’d have no reason to watch.
As a character, Walter Mitty was first introduced in 1939, in a New Yorker short story by James Thurber that captured the frustrated fantasist lurking beneath the henpecked exterior of a dull man. America was just emerging from Depression to prepare for war, and there were plenty of reasons to wish one was anywhere but here. But if the sheer persistence of Mittyism nearly three-quarters of a century on suggests a certain endurance of despair in America, it’s also fascinating to note how nearly all of these new movies draw from certain established traditions of cinematic bluesmanship.
The dark, success-averse farces of Billy (The Apartment) Wilder and Preston (The Lady Eve) Sturges are strongly evoked in both Wolf and American Hustle, and the latter also blatantly plunders the periodic heyday of the former, when nobody made darker movies about the American dream-life than Scorsese himself. Hustle is David O. Russell doing Scorsese as a kind of all-star SNL screwball farce – even Robert De Niro, Scorsese’s greatest and most frightening muse, gets a turn on Russell’s bustling dance floor – while Wolf is Scorsese revisiting his own past as a Billy Wilder boardroom farce dripped in gangster acid. We’d have no Scorsese without the seventies, a time when American movies were ever so briefly given licence to get as cloudy and anxious as they wanted, and in which an actor like Nebraska’s Bruce Dern – anxiety and delusional danger personified – could actually become a star.
So, yes, folks, the Dream is very much alive. Waking life guarantees it.