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INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

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Joel and Ethan Coen took filmgoers on a Homeric odyssey across Depression-era America in one of their earlier masterpieces, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Now they offer a smaller-scaled but more poignant journey through another period landscape in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Set mostly in Greenwich Village in 1961, when the renaissance in classic folk music was giving way to an emphasis on performers concentrating on their own songs (a young Bob Dylan is glimpsed at one point), the script focus on Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), a talented but struggling guitarist/singer who’s not at all helped by the fact that he’s surly and snappish even to the friends who’ll give the perpetually broke, homeless guy a place to crash for a night or two. On the night we meet him—onstage at the Gaslight Café, singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” and very well too—he goes into the back alley to meet somebody, only to be beaten up for reasons that will be explained only at the picture’s end. Somehow he makes his way to the apartment of Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Barrett), an older academic couple, where he awakes the next morning and, in leaving, accidentally lets their cat out.

Scooping up the wayward tabby, Llewyn proceeds to the flat of singing duo Jean (Caret Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), hoping for a place to stay but finding the couch taken by Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), an incredibly well-mannered soldier whose singing career—unlike his own—is on an upward trajectory. He also finds Jean understandably furious, since she’s pregnant after a fling with him—though he tells her not to worry, since from past experience he knows a doctor who’ll perform an abortion.

Already it’s obvious that Llewyn isn’t the nicest guy, or the luckiest. His long-time singing partner recently committed suicide, and his effort to go solo has gone nowhere. His adventures with the Gorfein feline don’t end well, and even a gig with Jim and bass Al Cody (Adam Driver) recording a novelty song miscarries, since he signs away potential royalties for immediate cash and we later hear that the record’s become a smash hit. Desperate for validation, he grabs an offer to drive to Chicago with a crippled, drug-addicted, brutally sarcastic jazz man named Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his laconic chauffeur (Garrett Hedlund) for a make-or-break audition with legendary impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) at the Golden Horn. Again he performs well, but Grossman gives him a brutally accurate assessment of his chances in the business. That takes him to the home of his sister (Jeanine Serralles), whom he promptly offends, and a visit to his father Hugh (Stan Carp), who stares at him blankly from a chair in a rest home even as he sings for him. A drive back to New York through an Ohio snowstorm has posed a couple of important choices for Llewyn, and the way he responds to them allows you to see inside him even better.

Obviously this isn’t your typical rags-to-riches show-biz tale, in which the struggling artist finally finds the recognition he so richly deserves. It’s the Coen version, in which a talented but self-absorbed loser who sponges off everyone he can and shows no empathy for anybody else gets not what he deserves (who does?) but what life brings him, fairly or not. And if that sounds depressing, rest assured that the movie boasts a strain of humor—much of the gallows variety, but funny nonetheless—and a soundtrack of wonderful songs (supervised by T Bone Burnett). It also features exquisite cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (who must have had a wonderful time shooting all the sequences with those cats) and production design (Jess Gonchor), art direction (Deborah Jensen), sets (Susan Bode Tyson) and costumes (Mary Zophres) that capture the period without taking things to excess.

And the cast is superb. Isaac is every inch the scruffy, quietly desperate Davis, begrudging others their small successes and almost automatically managing to alienate anyone he meets. Mulligan, Phillips, Barrett, Timberlake and Driver are effortlessly convincing as those he casually takes advantage of, while Goodman cuts a figure of Falstaffian proportions as the blunt, burned-out blues man.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is like one of the songs the title character specializes in—a somewhat repetitive, meandering tale of unfulfilled yearning, touched with suppressed anger and regretful acceptance. It’s a brilliant portrait of the artist as a failed man, the sort who would fall between the cracks were it not for the artists from a different medium who remind us that it’s well worth observing him despite his flaws, and who possess the skill to bring his world alive again a half-century after its disappearance.

NEBRASKA

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Just as he did in previous films like “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” Alexander Payne maintains a wonderful balance between sentiment and satire in “Nebraska.” His treatment of Middle American characters struggling with family troubles amid economic distress is gently mocking without becoming condescending, and affectionate without degenerating into schmaltz. The effect, bolstered by exceptional work from the cast and lustrous widescreen black-and-white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, is almost magical in its mixture of humor and poignancy.

The film is essentially a father-and-son road trip from Montana to Nebraska. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern in a career-capping performance) is a grizzled, half-befuddled old alcoholic who becomes convinced that a sweepstakes mailing that’s nothing more than a typical scam to promote magazine purchases represents an actual award of a million dollars, and he’s determined to get from Billings to Lincoln to claim the prize personally. Though his sharp-tongued wife Kate (hilariously feisty June Squibb) dismisses his obsession as the nuttiness of an old crank, Woody—who can no longer drive—is determined to walk the whole distance if need be, which convinces his son David (sad-faced Will Forte from “Saturday Night Live,” delivering a beautifully restrained performance) to drive him, even though he knows the entire trek is a waste, money-wise.

David is himself a rather pathetic figure—his live-in girlfriend has just moved out and his dreary job as a stereo salesman barely makes ends meet. But he somehow understands the importance of this quest to his bedraggled father and becomes his Sancho Panza in hopes of bonding with the man he’s always felt little connection with. Their trip, of courses, becomes a picaresque filled with little incidents, such as a genial one involving a lost set of dentures.

But the centerpiece is a stopover in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where a visit with his extended family, some of whom have their hands out, and encounters with old acquaintances—notably his erstwhile partner in a garage (Stacy Keach) whom Woody holds responsible for a past grievance but who, conversely, feels he’s entitled to a share in Grant’s winnings, as well as an elderly newspaperwoman (Angela McEwan)—give David new insight into his father’s past. After excursions to the dilapidated Grant homestead and the windswept local cemetery, the journey ends at the dingy sweepstakes headquarters in Lincoln and a final gesture by David that leads to a slow drive down Hawthorne’s main street that’s both melancholy and uplifting, a lovely summing-up of the life of a man not unlike the ones James Agee called famous.

Bob Nelson’s alternately touching, edgy and funny script and Payne’s typically gentle, unforced direction give their cast the opportunity to shine without being rushed. Dern is amazing, utterly jettisoning the hyper style that’s so often been the essence of his personality with a marvelously subtle turn that avoids the invitation to pander to the audience. It recalls Jack Nicholson’s Schmidt, not because the two characters are similar but because under Payne’s light touch both veteran stars perfectly embody their worlds of regret without losing sight of their dignity. Forte matches him beat for beat in an understated performance so good that it almost makes one forgive “MacGruber.” (I said almost.) Squibb, who was Nicholson’s short-lived spouse in “Schmidt,” here gets the chance to please the crowd with her blistering outspokenness, behind which lie hidden reservoirs of affection. Keach alternately exudes false joviality and backwoods menace, while Bob Odenkirk is a fine foil as Woody’s older son, a TV anchorman who’s a big fish in a very small, probably frozen pond. Most of the supporting cast—including McEwan, and Mary Louise Wilson and Rance Howard as Woody’s relatives—all strike the right tone, with the only jarring notes coming from Tim Driscoll and Devin Retray as David’s bumptious cousins, who represent the sole instance in which Nelson and Payne go for the satiric jugular, upsetting the film’s otherwise carefully modulated approach.

And just as important to the success of “Nebraska” are Papamichael’s crystalline cinematography, which gives the locations a luminous purity at odds with their distressed condition, and Mark Orton’s spare score. Though they don’t call attention to themselves, Dennis Washington’s production design, Sandy Veneziano’s art direction, Beauchamp Fontaine’s set decoration and Wendy Chuck’s costume design are all integral to the film’s authentic yet iconic look, too.

To be honest, Nebraska, on the evidence of this film, is hardly a pictorial garden spot one might long to visit. But as Payne and Nelson also show, it is a place filled with the dreams, longings and disappointments of the sort of people mostly overlooked in the great mass of American films. Their “Nebraska” is a destination you should head for without delay.