Review: Coen brothers craft timeless tale with 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

Oscar Isaac, left, and Justin Timberlake star in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Photo by Alison Rosa, ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC

Oscar Isaac, left, and Justin Timberlake star in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

The times, they were a-changin’ in the early 1960s. But it turns out that some things never change, whether it’s 1961 or 2013.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” takes viewers inside the folk-music scene of New York’s Greenwich Village and inside the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a folk singer struggling to make it on his own after the loss of his musical partner. Written and directed by brothers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, the film brilliantly captures the feel of time and place — and temperature. The chilly setting has viewers constantly wishing they were wearing more layers, even in a comfortable theater.

It also hits dead center on the grim and frustrating realities of the music industry. Digitalization may have altered the landscape, but the business of music, as with any art form, remains a matter of not just talent but also relationships, influence and luck.

The film’s most accurate achievement and probably its biggest handicap is the central character. Musicians as a species are an enigma. They can be some of the most self-centered and unlikable people on the planet, yet their talent and charisma draw us to them. Llewyn has the self-centered and unlikable part down, but his talent and charisma are only moderate.

Llewyn’s chief skill seems to be using people. He barely gets by on the cut he gets from gigs, so his home is usually a couch in someone’s apartment. All his belongings are in one small duffel and his guitar case. Even his stage presence is directed inward, though the songs he sings are traditional tunes, not original ones.

One morning Llewyn wakes up in a bed, alone except for a ginger cat. He’s still sore from a beating he received — seemingly for no reason — in an alley.

As he goes about the day, the cat remains front and center while the beating hovers in the background. He tries to get money out of his agent, looks for a place to stay and generally holds his art as being on a higher plane than anyone else’s.

Llewyn’s life is a mess, but every move he makes seems to be the wrong one. Doesn’t matter if it’s New York or Chicago: Llewyn discovers that there’s no escaping the person he has created.

The darkness of the film is lifted occasionally by a wry tone and uncomfortable humor. One of the best scenes is one set in a studio, with Llewyn nearly blowing a session set up by his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake).

Fans of folk music will not be disappointed in the soundtrack. The music ranges from comical to uplifting and is often a welcome respite.

It’s a mystery why most of the characters put up with Llewyn, but thankfully they do because that results in outstanding performances from Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham, Garrett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett and Max Casella. Isaac plays the irksome Llewyn effectively.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is about as intimate a movie as has come from the Coens. Ironically, it’s a film about a man who refuses to get close to anyone or anything.

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