Dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen
4.5 out of 5
The films of Joel and Ethan Coen exist in worlds of their own making. Like little idiosyncratic capsules of human behavior where mood and feeling matter more than a plot, these movies are all about twisting together the frayed ends of coincidence. To wit, a cat whose name is revealed late in the third act may go a long way in unlocking Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ fantastic Joyce-ian fable about the American folk music scene of the early 1960s. Oscar Isaac portrays the eponymous Davis, a frustrated folk singer whose former bandmate committed suicide by leaping off the George Washington Bridge. It’s a portrait of the artist as a compulsively watchable asshole, his emotions constantly jeopardizing his relationships with a small number of allies that only dwindles over the course of the film.
Llewyn Davis may be cinema’s most compelling character of the year. With a songbird’s voice and a mule’s heart, he is just another beast of burden trudging between Greenwich Village coffeehouses and lounges, part of a singular species in which everyone has a box of unsold LPs propping up an end table. Offstage, Llewyn is quite unlikable: sarcastic, glib, and kind of a hypocrite. He questions the artistic integrity of one bohemian friend but isn’t above recording a novelty single about the Space Race for some quick cash. Later, he hides behind the shield of professionalism when his patronizing uptown friends try to make him literally sing for his supper.
Alas, it’s only through music that Llewyn can truly communicate and connect with others, as long as they’re willing to listen. Inside Llewyn Davis is full of seamlessly integrated musical performances by Isaac, as well as co-stars Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as a married pair of musicians. Mulligan’s character is particularly harsh to Llewyn – for very good reasons – but her fury pales in comparison to the indignity he suffers as a travel companion to a dismissive and imperious jazz legend (John Goodman, making the most of every single frame) as well as the owner of a Chicago nightclub (F. Murray Abraham) where Llewyn makes a desperate attempt to secure a gig.
Inside Llewyn Davis never suggests that its antihero is of any exceptional merit, but neither does it assert that he’s entirely deserving of this shabby treatment. Llewyn is more like an avatar for the Coens’ mordant sense of humor about the universe. (See also: Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man; Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski) Even it most touching scenes are fraught with potential embarrassment and the looming threat of disappointment – Llewyn’s attempt to reconcile with his father runs the gamut from awkward to moving to mortifying. Yet none of this is accomplished with any hint of malice. It’s just the hint of bitterness that makes Inside Llewyn Davis’ underlying sweetness more palatable;, you’ll hardly notice when the movie is playing your heartstrings like a Gibson. Once again the Coens have managed to hide genuine emotion within a masterfully-designed quirkiness and imbue 100 minutes of failure with a foolhardy yet entirely human yearning for hope. Maybe Llewyn will never get it right, but he has to keep trying. Indeed, it’s the best that any of us can do.