Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

By Stephen Rebello

<p>The Coen brothers' portrait of an aspiring 1960s folk musician is one of the great films of 2013.<br></p>

Director: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Rating: R

Studio: StudioCanal

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman

Ethan and Joel Coen and company make something tough, wry, sweet and heart-tugging out of Inside Llewyn Davis. The movie, a character piece, is set in and around the coffeehouse, folk music Greenwich Village scene of the very early 1960s, and it charts one terrible week in the life of the fictional title singer-songwriter (Oscar Isaac), a struggling troubadour who may or may not have the stuff of stardom but who certainly doesn’t have the luck. In fact, the guy seems to be in a freefall from which he doesn’t look likely to pull out in time.

A 30ish working-class son of a merchant marine, our hero is forever broke, morose, homeless and hungry, dragging his guitar case and walking gray, freezing New York streets without winter gear. He mostly crashes on the couches of artist friends like singers Jim and Jean Berkey (played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) and pushing to the limit the patience and tender mercies of those who believe in his talent, like a pair of Columbia boho academics (Robin Bartlett and Ethan Phillips) whose cat (a standout performance!) he carelessly loses and chases around the city. Davis is an irresponsible user, openly disdainful of other singers and a master of self-sabotage. He’s even gotten Jean pregnant and in need of an abortion and, while we might sympathize with her, as played by Mulligan the character is merely perpetually angry, charmless and one-note. Timberlake, whose movie work to date has been pretty patchy, is just right here. It’s too bad, though, that since Jim and Jean were real-life folksingers with extraordinary voices, neither Timberlake nor Mulligan even attempt to emulate their distinctive sound.

The script might make you want to hate Llewyn Davis, but when Isaac sings and strums bracingly great stuff like Dave Van Ronk’s signature “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” as he does in a magically scene-setting opening sequence, we glimpse the guy’s gypsy soul. And, in a scene when he and Timberlake do session work on a space-age, antidraft novelty number called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” you want to toss your cap in the air, it’s so blissfully, goofily good. The period-authentic music in the film like “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” and “Green, Green Rocky Road,” executive produced by T Bone Burnett and performed by Isaac, Timberlake, Stark Sands, Marcus Mumford and others, is almost unfailingly authentic and gorgeous. It’s impossible to take your eyes off Isaac in the centerpiece role. He’s compelling, unapologetic, arrogant and heart-crushing in his hunger for a career that will put food on the table without his compromising his artistic integrity. It’s a performance as melancholy and gray as the snowy windswept streets of New York and Chicago photographed by the masterly Bruno Delbonnel.

The film takes a deeply weird, absolutely right hitchhiking road trip with a broken-down, acid-tongued jazz player (John Goodman) and his largely mute driver/companion (Garrett Hedlund); it only deepens and enriches the film’s sense of loss and its observations on the nature of fame. Inside Llewyn Davis haunts. It’s one of the greats of 2013.


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