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.
His choice mirrors the approach of the Academy Award-winning Coen brothers, who once again create a movie that challenges audiences while defying categorization. It’s both fresh and familiar, comedy and tragedy, straightforward narrative and think-piece parable. It’s also one of the best films of the year.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” — which doubles as the singer’s debut solo album title — doesn’t just use the legendary folk scene of 1961 Greenwich Village for a backdrop; the scene
the plot. It’s 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 Pianos have been replaced by acoustic guitars as the instrument of choice, an easily portable device that allows these squatters to move efficiently from gig to gig.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. He’s also a conceited, abrasive screw-up, which doesn’t 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” isn’t 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 it’s hard to dismiss his ability or motivation. Too bad he can’t embrace the times that are a-changin’ around him.
(At the Glenwood Arts.)