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.