By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 2, 2013 at 10:00AM
"That's a folk song," says Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) in the opening scene of Joel and Ethan Coen's aptly titled "Inside Llewyn Davis," after playing a tender melody for the cozy room at New York's Gaslight Café circa 1961. One could usually make a similar pronouncement about the Coen brothers' usually eccentric works -- yep, that's a Coen movie, folks -- but this one's a different story.
Light on plot, heavy on melody and feeling, "Inside Llewyn Davis" takes some inspiration from the career of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, but avoids the trappings of a biopic or making broad pronouncements about the era. Instead, the nomadic Llewyn's fleeting misadventures, which find him drifting from one couch to the next while struggling to justify his career, lead to a delicate, restrained portrait that results in a different kind of movie than anything else the sibling directors have made before.
Littered with catchy tunes composed by T. Bone Burnett, "Llewyn Davis" is the musical opposite of their bluegrass-heavy "O Brother Where Art Thou?" That was a hyper-stylized take on American iconography that, by comparison, seems to take place in an alternate reality; "Llewyn Davis" is closer to a familiar world.
That's partly because the Coens give the music room to breathe. Llewyn's acoustic compositions are mainly solemn works, and they reflect the character's solitary existence in the wake of a former bandmate's suicide that precedes the story. More than that, "Llewyn Davis" creates the sense of inhabiting its character's world without forcing his subjectivity in your face.
The directors' gentle touch makes it easy to empathize with their down-on-his luck protagonist in spite of his rascally attitude. When we first meet the man, he's crashing on the couch of married singing couple Jim (Justin Timberlake, in an amusingly bland turn) and Jean (Carey Mulligan, just the opposite, playing against character as a vulgar complainer). Conflict in Llewyn's life doesn't so much arrive to move the plot forward as it does to demonstrate his out-of-focus life. At some point or another, Llewyn accidentally knocked up Jean; when he learns of the matter, he tries to trick the clueless Jim into funding the abortion. That thread leads to another complication involving Llewyn's past that, in another movie, would almost certainly dominate its plot. Instead, the biggest conundrum that Llewyn faces is tracking down the neighbor's missing cat.
About that cat: Ulysses, the chilled-out tabby, which Llewyn discovers on his bed one morning and feels an amusingly inexplicable bond, immediately secures its place as a seminal character in the Coen brothers' universe. Its affectionate presence forms the only source of calm in Llewyn's unruly existence. While essentially a quirky device that leads to several comedic interludes, Ulysses is also a kind of proxy for the Coens themselves, peering into a world in which a few bizarre twists push the narrative in allegorical or otherwise irreverent directions. "Llewyn Davis" has a certain offbeat dimension, but that's mainly because Llewyn's rhythms in life rarely sync with his vocal talents.
Occasionally, however, the Coens can't help themselves: When Llewyn launches on an ill-fated road trip to Chicago, he winds up hitching a ride with a portly loudmouth named Roland Turner, played by John Goodman as a loudmouthed sleazebag with ample distaste for the prospects of the folk music genre. Their ensuing spat has plenty of entertainment value simply because the Coens excel at writing capricious, neurotic dialogue, but doesn't quite gel with the textured atmosphere in the rest of the movie. Llewyn has much in common with other Coen antiheroes wandering from place to place and trapped in futile tasks of their own creations, yet he never undergoes a transformation that leads to tidy conclusions.
Instead, the songs replace the demand for plot. When Llewyn performs the heartfelt "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" (one of several reasons why the "Llewyn Davis" soundtrack is bound to sell big) in the first scene, it arrives sans context. Replayed for a second time in the conclusion, it carries the full weight of his aimless existence. By comparison, the hilariously batty rockabilly tune "Please Please Mr. Kennedy," performed by Isaac, Timberlake and Adam Driver, demonstrates the intense divide between folk music's intimacy and rowdy, carefree sound of mainstream pop.
Critics of the Coens (yes, they exist) often fixate on their alleged disdain for their protagonists as they endure Job-like suffering with no end in sight. Llewyn's plight provides no exception, but his conundrum is more understandable because he's trapped by his passion. After a private performance for one potential client, he's told, "I don't see a lot of money in this;" he has no rebuttal prepared. An ode to art for art's sake, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is the most innocent movie of the Coens' career, which in their case is a downright radical achievement.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? CBS Films releases "Inside Llewyn Davis" this Friday, when strong buzz since its Cannes debut should result in a healthy opening weekend box office and strong returns for several weeks as it remains a sizable awards season player.