'Inside Llewyn Davis,' the story of a troubled troubadour, is one of the Coen brothers' best

'Inside Llewyn Davis' stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake.

Alison Rosa/CBS Films/AP
This film image released by CBS FIlms shows, from left, Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver in a scene from "Inside Llewyn Davis."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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