Silver Screen: Inside Llewyn Davis *****
Like American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis is a character study, and though it’s decidedly less flashy, it’s also subtler and more quietly revelatory. That’s no real surprise considering it comes from the dazzling minds of Joel and Ethan Coen, who are so consistently innovative that a new, brilliant movie is at this point de rigueur. Another year, another outstanding entry into one of the most formidable, idiosyncratic filmographies of all time. Being alive and able to afford a movie ticket at the same time these guys are producing art is one of the great compensations for trudging through existence in 2014.
Inside Llewyn Davis is, in fact, specifically about the struggle to create pure and meaningful art in the face of commercial ambivalence and existential despair. The title character, played by Oscar Isaac in an exceptional breakout performance, is a singer and songwriter playing his trade in the emergent Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961. Fans of folk music, most notably of a particular singer/songwriter who emerged from the Coens’ native land of Minnesota, will note the significance of the year.
Llewyn is a bit of a mess, a couch-crashing mooch who bounces from apartment to apartment and lives on favors. His supply of goodwill is running short. He abuses the hospitality of his well-meaning patrons and tests the patience of an indulgent club owner (the wonderful character actor Max Casella). His sister (Jeanine Serralles) is tired of floating him loans and wants him to return to work in the Merchant Marines. Seriously complicating matters is the unexpected pregnancy of Jean (Carey Mulligan), one-half of a folk-singing duo with her earnest boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake), whose hospitality didn’t stop Llewyn from maybe knocking her up.
It’s a heady, heavy week for Llewyn, who’s struggling to find the bare necessities of food and shelter while confronting a series of personal revelations about his past, his parents, the potential of fatherhood, and his own artistic relevance. Along the way he wrecks a party, gets into a fight, and takes a trip to Chicago with a heroin-addled jazzman (John Goodman) in an effort to gain an audience with an influential manager (F. Murray Abraham).
If all this makes Llewyn sound like a bit of a dick, well, he is, but Isaac and the Coens have created a character far more complex than just a comic scalawag. Llewyn’s sadness and cynicism spring from a deep well we don’t fully understand until late in the movie. The Coens withhold one essential detail about Llewyn’s past that demystifies his seemingly erratic behavior. They slip in this tidbit of knowledge delicately and covertly, and this one fact becomes the Rosetta Stone that allows us to expand our perception of the character.
The Coens neither excuse Llewyn’s abrasiveness, nor indulge in it. He’s often hostile, but our sympathies lie with him even before we fully understand him. He’s unnecessarily harsh, but he’s often right, especially about music. But being right at the wrong time can be incredibly difficult.
Despite Llewyn’s dire predicament and weighty concerns, Inside Llewyn Davis is a surprisingly buoyant film, thanks in part to the fantastic score from the Coens’ go-to music man, T-Bone Burnett. Isaac is an impressive performer in his own right. For the movie to have any credibility, Llewyn must actually be good, and he is— Isaac’s solo performances are soulful and absolutely believable. Additional levity is provided via hilariously jaunty tunes from him, Timberlake, and supporting player Adam Driver, as well as a subplot about an adorable lost cat that provides the movie’s most consistent narrative thread.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a tremendous achievement that’s every bit as cerebral as A Serious Man, but more casually and gracefully so. It all leads to a final scene that’s tantalizingly ambiguous, equally hopeful and heartbreaking. The times, they are a-changin’... but to what end?
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.