What happens when that moment arrives in an artist's life when it becomes clear that being really good at your art might not be enough?
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” yet another fine Coen brothers dark comedy drenched in sarcasm and irony, covers the week it arrives in the life of folk singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac). It is the winter of 1961 in Greenwich Village, just before Bob Dylan arrives to break the folk scene wide open.
As Llewyn's frustration mounts, much of it of his own making, his slog toward a turning point takes place in a gray and pale blue world of slushy potholes, sleet-covered windshields, smoky coffee houses, skinny hallways and steep staircases that lead to yet another night crashed on somebody else's couch. Huddled against the wintry winds of fate, this guy doesn't even own an overcoat.
Llewyn, with his unruly mop and his dangling cigarette ash and his soulful, mournful eyes, stubbornly refuses to compromise his art toward commercialism. When his preppy friend, Jim (Justin Timberlake), hires him as a recording session backup player, he turns down a slice of royalties in favor of an immediate $200. You want to shake him into realizing the silly novelty song about the hazards of being an astronaut (“Please, Mr. Kennedy”), which he hates, holds the promise of a hit.
Llewyn Davis isn't a very likable character. He's not nice to people, not even himself. He sleeps with Jim's girl, Jean (Carey Mulligan, a spitfire who spews vitriol at Llewyn), brutally insults a well-heeled couple who only want to help him (Robin Bartlett, Ethan Phillips), and attacks his well-meaning sister in language his young nephew really shouldn't hear.
Quite simply, the story is a slice of a down-at-the-heels life.
But what a richly detailed, beautifully filmed and acted slice. There's an awful lot to admire here about the work of directors Joel and Ethan Coen. From convincing period detail to fine cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel) and the Coen brothers' own skillful editing, this is a well-made movie.
Folk-music fans won't be disappointed, either. Isaac is a terrific singer of soulful ballads skillfully paired with plot turns. T-Bone Burnett's soundtrack, left on my car stereo for a month, was addictive.
The movie is loaded with interesting characters, from those mentioned above to the owner of the recording company that Llewyn thinks owes him money (Jerry Grayson) and a Chicago club owner for whom Llewyn auditions (F. Murray Abraham, great cameo). My favorite: John Goodman as a junkie jazz man with whom Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago, only to endure scorn and ridicule. Garrett Hedlund is also good as Goodman's driver, a taciturn beat poet.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” reminded me of the Coens' “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” another odyssey set amid period music; and of “A Serious Man,” about another Coen character who could not catch a break. This time, comedy or no, I didn't laugh much.
But the movie got better and better as it aged inside my head. Watch what's going on wordlessly in a scene where Jim and Jean sing “500 Miles” while Llewyn looks on from the back of the house. You'll know what I mean.
* * * * *
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Quality: 3.5 stars (out of four)
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Stars: Oscar Isaac, John Goodman, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund
Rating: R for language, some sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Theaters: Film Streams, Majestic, Oakview