Llewyn Davis, a folk singer drifting along the fringes of fame, finally gets an audition with a big-shot agent. But instead of playing a marketable song, he selects something offbeat and antiquated.
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
His choice mirrors the approach of the Academy Award-winning Coen brothers, who once again create a movie that challenges audiences while defying categorization. Its both fresh and familiar, comedy and tragedy, straightforward narrative and think-piece parable. Its also one of the best films of the year.
Inside Llewyn Davis which doubles as the singers debut solo album title doesnt just use the legendary folk scene of 1961 Greenwich Village for a backdrop; the scene is the plot. Its a gray, urban labyrinth populated by a new breed of musician. Pianos have been replaced by acoustic guitars as the instrument of choice, an easily portable device that allows these squatters to move efficiently from gig to gig.
Having gone solo after making a name in a semi-successful duo, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is determined to pursue music instead of settling for another tour as a Merchant Marine. Under his curly dark hair and hipster beard beats the soul of a talented singer-guitarist with a confident stage presence. Hes also a conceited, abrasive screw-up, which doesnt sit well with ex-fling Jean (Carey Mulligan) and her boyfriend Jim (an earnest Justin Timberlake), also performers on the scene.
Everything you touch turns to (expletive) like King Midas idiot brother, Jean berates him.
The film follows Llewyn as he plays pass-the-hat shows, sleeps on friends couches and reluctantly baby-sits a cat. Not exactly Raiders of the Lost Ark in terms of momentum, but the characters are amusing, and the period detail distinct. And the songs are absolutely bewitching. The Coens let the tunes play out in full no snippets with the actors delivering entirely live performances onscreen.
Highlights include the comforting, ethereal Fare Thee Well (with Isaac joined by Marcus Mumford) and the hilarious novelty track Please Mr. Kennedy about a reluctant astronaut (with help from Timberlake and Adam Driver). Veteran producer T Bone Burnett supplies the musical continuity.
Since this episodic picture springs from the wild genius of Joel and Ethan Coen, the drama naturally explores darker themes. It gets downright sinister when Llewyn shares a ride to a Chicago audition with bloated jazz player Roland Turner (John Goodman). To Roland, folk music is Jimmy Crack Corn, so he relentlessly badgers the singer about the genre.
In jazz, you know, we play all the notes. Twelve notes in a scale. Not three chords on a uk-u-lele, Roland says.
Doubtful that Roland would appreciate the subtleties of the movie he resides in. Inside Llewyn Davis isnt really about the notes, but the space between the notes. It provides one of the rare realistic, non-gimmicky portraits of a working musician which often equates to non-working musician. Isaac (best known as Standard in Drive) elevates this lonely, understated role into something that warrants a best actor nomination.
Llewyn is not the easiest guy to root for, yet its hard to dismiss his ability or motivation. Too bad he cant embrace the times that are a-changin around him.
(At the Glenwood Arts.)