“You comfortable with harmonies?” “No.”
Llewyn Davis sings to us before he speaks to us. Up on a small stage, alone, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) croons to a somewhat appreciative crowd, before wrapping up his set and heading out to an alley, where he will be punched in the face for being a jackass (yet again). Somewhere between “has-been” and “never-was” exists the “also-rans” like Llewyn, people who made a fair go of it and never amounted to much in a large sense, but who probably meant something to someone at some point in time. It’s easy to imagine that, somewhere in the grand imagined universe of Inside Llewyn Davis, a folk music fan has discovered the singer’s albums and loves them intensely, even in the modern era. In his own lifetime, however, the fictional Llewyn didn’t have such luck.
The Coen Brothers’ long-gestating latest chronicles one week in the trials and tribulations of the strumming and singing Llewyn, a Greenwich Village folk singer trying to make his way during the winter of 1961. Penniless, homeless, and perhaps too stubborn to be appropriately hopeless, Llewyn spends his days hanging out in bars and looking for gigs, and his nights either playing those gigs or couch-surfing (a favorite spot of his is the ragged two-seater belonging to singing duo Jean and Jim, played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake). Rife with the colorful characters and classic situational comedy that runs through every Coen Brothers picture, Inside Llewyn Davis is often very funny, even as it consistently careens towards low-speed tragedy. The tunes aren’t so bad either (kidding – they’re fantastic).
The film is almost principally populated by men, save for Llewyn’s agent’s doddering assistant, his disapproving sister, and Mulligan as one outrageously angry young lady unwilling to come to terms with her own part in a life-changing mistake she made with Oscar (you can guess what kind of mistake it was). Shrill, brutal, and unrelenting, Jean’s own hardships have made her, well, just hard, and even though her blazing anger overwhelms, at least Jean is connected to her circumstances. Llewyn, however, just can’t seem to get a grip on the state of his life. Saddled early on in the film with an escaped cat, Llewyn can barely handle keeping one feline in line, and while the animal (expertly acted, it must be mentioned) clearly seems to represent Llewyn’s slipping humanity, it’s still an effective piece of the film, one with weirdly striking stakes.
For all his high billing, Justin Timberlake only appears briefly in the film, and it’s a damn good thing that two of his largest chunks of screen time are occupied by musical performances, because the multi-hyphenate can barely keep his (well-coiffed) head above water when it comes time to buckle down and simply act. When Timberlake has a microphone shoved in his face, he’s fine, thrilling even, but when his Jim is tasked with replicating human emotion, it only rings as very false and very poorly executed. Conversely, Adam Driver pops up about as often as Timberlake, but his presence is always welcome and more of it would be wonderful (even if you’re not a fan of the “Girls” star, his catchy contribution to an Isaac and Timberlake song is incredibly amusing; someone should give him his own record deal now, just for the potential laughs).
Perhaps it’s because Isaac is just that good – he makes everyone else around him look bad, or at least not up to snuff. Only John Goodman manages to match pace with the star in a hilarious supporting role, and Isaac really is a star – Inside Llewyn Davis is one hell of a coming out party, and when people refer to a starmaking role, this is the kind of work they’re referring to.
In speaking about the film recently, Ethan Coen shared that he and his brother were interested in making a film that’s “an Odyssey in which the main character doesn’t go anywhere.” Llewyn goes places and does things and makes decisions (strangely enough, it’s the small ones that prove most important), but he never actually goes anywhere. It’s why the same stuff keeps happening to him (just as Jean says, in a rare moment of non-angry lucidity) and why he’ll keep scrapping by, forever, the same stuff, forever. The Coens drive this point home in the film’s final moments, commenting directly on the cyclical nature of Llewyn’s life by way of a classic narrative device that could ring as cheesy, but here works to rousing, wonderful effect.
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