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'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.

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The Coens created a Job-like character in “A Serious Man,” a luckless professor for whom nothing could go right. There was an element of cruelty in that film, like watching someone being dismembered slowly, limb by limb, but the ghastliness of the man’s predicament was so horrible it was funny – a black comic kvell. Llewyn’s fate is more of a slow-burn slide into despair, a despair he never fully allows himself to indulge.

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The Coens don’t fully allow us to indulge it, either. That’s all for the best, I think, and not just because otherwise the film might be too much to bear. They don’t get all slobby-soppy with us, and so the moments of poignancy in this film, of which there are many, come through without any special pleading. When Llewyn sings Ewan MacColl’s tender “The Shoals of Herring” to his infirm, uncomprehending ex-Merchant Marine father in a nursing home, the brief sequence has a plaintive grace.

Llewyn’s working-class background – he also has toiled as a merchant mariner – sets him somewhat apart from the other folkies that we see. It gives his grit a pedigree. There’s some class condescension in how he reacts to those who are better off than he. His response to the kindly wife of a Columbia professor who exclaims, “I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul,” is a hard-bitten disbelief. That’s his pose, but it’s also how he copes in an unabiding world. Bitterness is his armature.

The people in this movie are writhing in various states of turmoil, but they have an avidity for their own misery. Roland Turner (marvelously played by John Goodman), the big, bleary New Orleans bluesman with whom Llewyn shares a disastrous ride to Chicago, is a Falstaffian sleazeball. The great F. Murray Abraham’s poker-faced artist’s manager Bud Grossman is not so much miserable as he is the cause of misery in others. After listening to Llewyn pour his heart out in an audition, he fills the slow silence by matter-of-factly stating, “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

The losses for Llewyn pile up, but he never quite resigns himself to his predicament. He never lets go. But we can see what he can’t – the folkie revolution that will usher in his kind of music. Is his an impending happy ending or a final forlorn put-down by the fates? The story closes on a rich and necessary ambiguity. Grade: A- (Rated R for language including some sexual references.)

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