There are two important things to know about the fictional 1961 folk singer at the center of Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis.” One, he’s quite talented. Not brilliant, not the best of his generation, but well above average, with a clear, honeyed singing voice and an intensity of spirit. Two, he can be a real bastard sometimes, burdening his friends with his vagabond, couch-surfing ways, and ruining dinner parties with his outbursts.
This combination of talent and moodiness is common in artists, of course, and the question is often whether the first thing excuses the second thing. Llewyn (played by Oscar Isaac) is good enough that it’s not delusional of him to seek fame and fortune in the burgeoning New York folk scene (which the Coens recreate with charming though un-nostalgic precision). But he’s not so great that you can entirely overlook his recklessness and prickly demeanor. He’s not, as the movie makes explicitly clear, Bob Dylan.
On the other hand, we’re sympathetic to his situation, as are his friends (some more than others). Until recently, he was part of a duo. His partner’s absence casts a pall over everything. You want to bring down a room, all you have to do is mention Mike. Llewyn is penniless and depressed. It’s February, and he doesn’t even have a winter coat. He has the drive and talent to be successful. What he doesn’t have, so far, is the luck.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” covers a pivotal week for Llewyn, during which he’ll have to decide, once and for all, whether he’s cut out for the lifestyle of a Greenwich Village folkie, or whether it’s time to give it up and return to the stability of the merchant marines. His decrepit agent (Jerry Grayson) isn’t hopeful. A middle-aged Upper West Side academic couple, Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Barlett), are his biggest supporters, encouraging his career and letting him crash on their couch regularly; he loses their cat.
The flecks of gray in Llewyn’s hair make him look older than he is (late twenties, probably), but they’re reminders of a dilemma that is looming larger and larger in his mind: He’s not gettin’ any younger. How long can he keep doing this? “It was never new, and it never gets old, and it’s a folk song” is how he describes a tune to a small but appreciative cafe audience. It’s a clever, slightly profound line — and it’s also a comment on the unending cycle of striving, hustling, and starving that is his life.
Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend, fellow folkie Jean (Carey Mulligan), loathes him with humorous fury, though you can detect the remains of fondness underneath her invective. She and her new romantic and musical partner, earnest doofus Jim (Justin Timberlake), mix easily with others, including a soldier (Stark Sands) who wants a music career when he gets out of the Army, and Al Cody (Adam Driver), who’s at approximately the same level as Llewyn professionally, but isn’t hindered by the same kind of emotional baggage. Llewyn was great as half of a duo, but he’s cold as a solo act, and he refuses to stop being a solo act.
Like many of the Coens’ films, this one has a dark whimsy to it, peculiar and funny but run through with deep melancholy. Certain characters, like the peevish blowhard jazzman Roland Turner (John Goodman!), who sneers at Llewyn’s folk music, are so wonderfully off-kilter — and disappear from the narrative so abruptly — that you think maybe you dreamed them. This sense of reverie is enhanced by Llewyn’s acoustic musical selections, which are emotional and haunting rather than political, and by the film’s recursive structure, which hints at the idea of Llewyn being doomed to repeat his failures forever, learning and improving only slightly from one cycle to the next.
But perhaps that’s the pessimistic view. Another way of looking at it is this: Llewyn may not be on the brink of success, or even financial stability, and maybe he’ll never get there at all. But he’s gradually learning how to make his life bearable, thanks in large part to his “career,” whatever it is. His stubborn devotion to music isn’t what’s ruining him, it’s what’s keeping him alive.
The film would make an excellent double feature with the Coens’ last original movie, “A Serious Man,” which was also about a worn-down striver trying to make sense of a random-seeming universe. (Incidentally, both films didn’t have their full impact on me until the second time I watched them.) But this one’s more overtly funny, more fixed in reality. Oscar Isaac’s heartfelt turn in the lead role is also a display of musical talent — the guy can sing the hell out of a folk song — that serves as the movie’s wounded soul.
A (1 hr., 46 min.; )