Long hours on the road, sleeping on sofas, eating very little, 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 perhaps doesn’t have that enigmatic extra ingredient to push him out of his routine gigs at the Gaslight Café, and into bigger and better and shows and opportunities. So he remains perpetually frustrated, and even comically baffled, by the music that is embraced by public, producers and label owners.
Set in 1961, right at the cusp of the American folk explosion, Llewyn is repped by Legacy — what appears to be a literal elderly mom and pop record company — and is trying to make a go of it as a solo artist, as his previous duo act — Timlin & Davis — splits. Record sales seem to be non-existent, but his label don’t seem to be working too hard to promote the 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; Gaslight Café manager Nunzio (Ricardo Codero) and his sister (who can barely tolerate him).
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 freeform, but never out of the Coens’ grasp. The film unfolds over what turns about be roughly a week or so in the life of Llewyn, and follows his attempts to put some order to the chaos in his life. And it’s a tough week: Jean reveals he’s pregnant with his child; he’s saddled carrying the Gorfeins’ cat after it escapes out the door, and accidentally locks the door behind him after staying the night (a great running gag that eventually turns into a lovely metaphor for Llewyn’s journey); he’s chasing payments from Legacy and trying to line up some gigs. A road trip later in the picture offers a change of pace, but this is a slice of life of one of many 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,” the last major folk movie).
But the success or failure of the film resides on Oscar Isaac, and he absolutely wears 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). He’s exasperated but still has hope, he’s undeniably skilled, but also feeling completely out of sync with 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 was part of one of the biggest laughs at the Cannes screening) 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 pretty 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 (given generous space in the movie, making it a quasi-musical), that folk heads will have fun with catching the references. But even if you’re not up on your folk history, which inspires all kinds of details in the film (ie. 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 on without any foreknowledge of that backstory 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 that light goes on, and you can connect for even four minutes on stage, in a club you’ve played hundreds of times, 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]