I freakin’ love “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coens’ moody, bitterly funny, dead-on accurate recreation of the early ’60s New York folk scene.
I love it despite the fact that it’s a downer — similar in mood to “Barton Fink” — and that its protagonist is a talented but selfish sphincter. I love its atmosphere, I love the music.
Of course, the main character is a dick, and I might love the film even more if it showed even a teeny bit of heart, but then it wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers movie.
We meet our titular protagonist, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), playing and singing in Greenwich Village’s Gaslight club in 1961. Llewyn (pronounced Lew-In) is performing a traditional song called “Hang Me Oh Hang Me,” and he’s really, really good.
Of course he’s also a folkie purist, a snob, and an artiste whose uncompromising vision pretty much rules out anything like commercial success. He’s like a perverse King Midas — everything he touches turns to crap.
The film follows Llewyn as he drifts around the city during a cold snap. Wearing nothing but a threadbare sports coat and a muffler, his touseled hair blowing in the frigid breeze, our man could almost be a character out of Dickens. (Clearly, the Coens have studied the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” LP.)
He’s got no home so he crashes where he can. He spends a night with a Columbia University professor and his wife, and inadvertently lets the couple’s big orange cat escape. Locked out of the apartment, Llewyn has no option but to carry the feline about on his chilly perambulations.
He tries to impose on his old friends Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan), who have a boy/girl folk act. Jean is in a singularly bad mood, and she reveals privately to Llewyn that she’s pregnant — although whether the child is his or Jim’s is an open question. (The Coens revel in having Mulligan, one of the sweetest presences in film, rage like a profane harpy.)
Llewyn dourly promises money for an abortion.
Desperate for cash, Llewyn agrees to do some session work for Jim, who has written a goofy novelty song about JFK and outer space. Offered an upfront payment or a percentage of the profits, he takes the former — he’d just as soon not be associated with such aural cheese. Of course, the tune goes on to be an immense hit.
In desperation our man hits the road, thumbing his way to Chicago for an audition with legendary nightclub owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), who listens to a tune and declares “I don’t see any money here.” Llewyn can only shrug — rejection is built into his DNA.
Maybe it’s time to dig up his old Merchant Marine card and ship out.
For a film set in existential limbo and centering on a bad-tempered perennial sad sack with no prospects, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is often bleakly hilarious, filled with moments of deadpan humor. It even has a requisite role for John Goodman as a boorish, bellicose jazz musician (I’m thinking Doc Pomus on a bad day).
“Llewyn Davis” does for folk music what the Coen’s ”O Brother Where Art Thou?” did for roots country, offerings a smattering of terrific folk tunes performed in a variety of styles.
And it’s a brilliant re-creation of a time and place, from chilly coldwater flats to dank coffeehouses lit by candles and thick with tobacco smoke and wafting desperation.
The downside here is that Llewyn is not a character you can warm up to. Isaac (born in Gautemala, reared in Miami, trained at Juilliard) perfectly captures his arrogance and beaten-down pride, but he can’t make Llewyn likeable.
Like I said…that wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers movie.