Llewyn Davis, the down-on-his-luck troubadour Oscar Isaac plays in the new movie from the Coen brothers, is supposedly modeled on Dave Van Ronk, one of the seminal figures of the ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene. But he’s also, and perhaps more plainly, a quintessentially Coen creation: the little man prodded and tested by fate, against whom the universe seems to be constantly, tragicomically conspiring. One half of a disbanded duo—the reasons for the split are only gradually revealed—Llewyn spends his days braving the cold of the city, and his nights crashing on acquaintances’ couches. He has no home, no money, no fan base, no winter coat. What separates this poor schmuck from other Coen playthings, like Barton Fink or Larry Gopnik, is the distinct possibility that his troubles are entirely of his own making. Just ask the kindly couple whose cat he carelessly lets loose—or, more pointedly, the ballad-singing beauty (Carey Mulligan) he’s seduced and impregnated, unbeknown to the woman’s beau (Justin Timberlake).
Beautifully shot by Amélie cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis is instantly recognizable as the work of its sibling auteurs. But it’s also something of a departure—looser and more rambling than the average Coen concoction, with a lovingly recreated period setting. Besides a fine and funny character piece, the film is also a snapshot of a very specific time and place—the boho stomping grounds of a young Bob Dylan, among others—and the Coens seem almost humbled by a reverence for the milieu (and the music). They’ve reunited with T-Bone Burnett, who produced the Grammy-winning soundtrack of their O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and who this time spearheads a track list of soulful folk covers. There’s also a riotous, already famous scene in which Llewyn bumbles into the recording session of an infectiously ridiculous novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” featuring Adam Driver as a Jewish cowboy providing kitschy backup vocals. The brilliance of the sequence is the way it reveals the joy of performance, even when the tunes being banged out are, to put it charitably, kind of stupid.
The plot, if it can be called that, is just a series of seriocomic encounters: Llewyn argues with his manager (the late Jerry Grayson), Llewyn ruins a dinner party, Lleywn rudely heckles a fellow performer at the famous Gaslight Cafe. (A late sorta-cameo by that venue’s most famous alum is too cute by half.) It’s Isaac, in what should be a star-making performance, who gives the material shape. He plays his character as an incorrigible screw-up, stubbornly clinging to his notions of artistic integrity even as he mooches off the “squares” who don’t meet his high standards. But is Llewyn an unsung genius, tragically unappreciated in his own time, or is he a modestly skilled entertainer missing that spark of true creativity? To a layman’s ears, his gifts—demonstrated during several intimate, acoustic renditions—seem plain as day. But maybe there’s truth to the crushing career advice he gets from a Chicago music-biz mogul (F. Murray Abraham): Talented isn’t enough. You need something more to go big.
Like its protagonist, Inside Llewyn Davis falls just a little short. It’s a bit too meandering, too unfocused; about midway through, John Goodman shows up, bellowing insults as a junkie jazzbo, and the whole picture seems to careen off its axis. (It’s as if the Coens temporarily flip channels to one of their much broader farces.) But there’s also a weariness here, common to everything the filmmakers have spit out since No Country For Old Men, that elevates the movie above a simple exercise in cosmic cruelty. The circular plotting is important: Failing in his attempts to make it honest, to cash in, even to quit the game, Llewyn is caught in a professional purgatory. Twenty-some years after Barton Fink, the Coens have returned with another comedy about the maddening, exasperating business of trying to make art for money. The joke is still on the artist, but the brothers aren’t laughing so hard this time around.