'Inside Llewyn Davis,' the story of a troubled troubadour, is one of the Coen brothers' best (+video)
'Inside Llewyn Davis' stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake.
In top form, Joel and Ethan Coen offer up feel-bad experiences that, like fine blues medleys, make you feel good (although with an acidulous aftertaste). “Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of their best. So many movies are emblazoned with happy faces; this one wears its sadness, and its snarl, proudly.Skip to next paragraph
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There is more to this film than the tinny nihilism that often mars the brothers’ movies. Set in 1961, when the folk-music scene was just beginning to morph into its early Bob Dylan phase, it’s about a week in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, in a career-making performance), a troubadour whose heartfelt first solo album has fallen on mostly deaf ears.
Llewyn – the name is Welsh – was in a moderately successful duo until his partner jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Now he spends his nights sleeping on the couches of friends from the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village, toting his guitar as well as an orange tabby named Ulysses that escaped from one of the apartments he crashed in. It’s wintertime and Llewyn can’t even afford a heavy coat.
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He has the sloe-eyed look of a famished, bearded apostle – he could have stepped out of an El Greco canvas. (Isaac, who grew up in Miami, has a Guatamalan-Cuban lineage.) Despite the hardships – the two-bit recording gigs, the lukewarm sets at the Village’s Gaslight Café, the going-nowhere tryouts – Llewyn is no figure of pathos. He’s too ornery for that. He may not have much of a life, but he manages to disrupt the lives of everybody around him.
Jean (Carey Mulligan), for example, is one half of a clean-cut folkie duo with her husband, Jim (Justin Timberlake), who is also a good friend of Llewyn’s. Llewyn has nevertheless impregnated Jean, and her vituperation with him cuts right through her stage-managed cheeriness. Already cash-strapped, he now must pay for her abortion.
Why should we care about Llewyn? It’s a fair question, and there indeed were times when I thought I was trapped inside a generic Coen Brothers drearathon. What lifts the film out of the usual glum rut is that Llewyn, for all his self-regarding annoyingness, is a genuine talent. He exhibits the true artist’s alchemy: When he’s performing, all his nonsense burns away and what you get is pure, proud, deep-toned feeling. (The marvelous soundtrack of songs, some standards, some new, was produced by T Bone Burnett.) Only as an artist is he fully realized, and so his failure to connect with audiences and booking agents isn’t just a professional loss, it’s a personal tragedy.