Long hours on the road, sleeping on sofas, eating poorly, playing shows for little money; it’s a wonder why anyone struggles to make it as a musician. But for Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) there really isn’t any other option to playing music. “…and what, just exist?” he counters, when his sister suggests he stops couch surfing, borrowing money and barely getting by, and re-enter the Merchant Marine. While Llewyn can’t quite put into words the passion that sustains an existence perpetually on the fringes, hustling for the next dollar, it’s that weary energy that drives the Coen Brothers‘ “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
It’s another excellent study from the filmmakers of an ordinary man caught in a tailspin. But unlike the Dude who abides, or Larry Gopnik, who endures one cruel twist of fate after another, or perhaps Barton Fink, who’s in over his head, Llewyn is fighting against his own talent. He’s very good—but doesn’t have that enigmatic extra ingredient that will push him out of his routine gigs at the Gaslight Café, and into bigger and better shows and opportunities. So he remains perpetually frustrated, and even comically baffled, by the music that is embraced by the public, producers, and label owners.
Set in 1961, right at the cusp of the American folk explosion, Llewyn is repped by Legacy (a record company run by an elderly Mom and Pop) and is trying to make a go of it as a solo artist, after his previous duo act—Timlin & Davis—splits. Record sales seem to be non-existent, while his label doesn’t seem to be working too hard to promote his LP. Without a permanent residence, he bounces from place to place, and what he lacks in close friends, he makes up for in a ramshackle group of acquaintances including: the perpetually sour ex-lover Jean (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake), who have their own music group; the well-to-do Upper West Side couple the Gorfeins; and Gaslight Café manager Nunzio (Ricardo Codero) and his sister.
Arguably the least plot-driven film from the Coens since “The Big Lebowski,” which still provided the journey for a new carpet as the Macguffin of sorts, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is even more free form, but never out of the directors’ grasp. The film unfolds over a week or so, and follows Llewyn as he attempts to put some order to the chaos in his life. And it’s a tough week: Jean reveals she’s pregnant with his child; he’s saddled carrying the Gorfeins’ cat after it escapes out the door which locks behind him (a great running gag that eventually turns into a lovely metaphor for Llewyn’s journey); and he’s chasing payments from Legacy, while trying to line up some gigs. A road trip later in the picture offers a change of pace, but overall, this is a slice of life of someone trying to make it on the folk circuit, and the Coens capture every detail, acknowledging their fondness for their era, while being able to laugh at it as well (though without getting as broad as Christopher Guest‘s “A Mighty Wind“).
But the success or failure of the film resides on Oscar Isaac, and he absolutely fits the Coens’ precise dialogue and tone like a glove, and delivers a melancholy, worn performance that’s equally funny as well (sometimes both at the same time). His Llewyn is exasperated but still has hope, he’s undeniably skilled, but also feeling completely out of sync with the more popular acts that are sprouting up around him. The directors cast the rest of players wisely, with the aforementioned actors all very good (Mulligan is perfectly acidic and bitter) and even smaller parts for John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund (nearly dialogue free), Adam Driver (who is part of one of the biggest laughs in the film) and Alex Karpovsky aren’t just cast for cameo purposes, but really enliven what would otherwise be throwaway roles, creating a rich world for this movie to take place in, and for Llewyn to interact with. (And it’s all beautifully shot by Bruno Debonnel too, subbing for Coens regular Roger Deakins who was busy on “Skyfall,” giving it all a nostalgic, faded album cover look.)
Much like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” it’s the music that many will be talking about as well, starting with Isaac himself. The film opens with a full-length song performed by the actor, and he’s simply great, selling the soul of Llewyn’s music with plaintive ease. Executive producer T. Bone Burnett supervises a great batch of covers and originals, but even if you’re not up on your folk history, which inspires all kinds of details in the film (i.e. club owner and manager Bud Grossman, played by F. Murray Abraham unsurprisingly shares the same surname as early Bob Dylan manager, Albert Grossman), the movie succeeds all its own without any foreknowledge of that scene necessary.
Definitely a bit darker than people might expect, particularly in the latter stages, “Inside Llewyn Davis” celebrates those whose moment at fame will forever be a phantom. Llewyn Davis is endlessly striving, gets knocked down and picks himself up again, brushes off his rumpled clothes, and gives it another go. He’ll make mistakes, he’ll fuck up, he’ll be down and out and perhaps even on top, if ever so briefly. But when lights goes on, and you can connect with an audience through a song, in a club you’ve played in hundreds of times before, sometimes that’s enough. “Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t about someone trying to make it big, but someone just trying to make it, and the Coens celebrate the hard road that can inspire great art. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.