Wintertime, and the living ain’t easy. A bearded man climbs off yet another couch mooched in someone’s Manhattan apartment, grabs his guitar and heads down to Greenwich Village to a hole-in-the-wall club, where the owner passes a basket around the audience after his brief set.
He goes out for a cigarette in the back alley. A stranger walks up, punches him in the face, knocks him down and kicks him in the ribs. We’ll spend the rest of “Inside Llewyn Davis” learning why the title character deserved a beating yet feeling sympathy for him.
Joel and Ethan Coen, two of the most emotionally detached writer-directors in the film business, have finally made a down-to-earth, fundamentally real movie about people you might pass in the street. (“Fundamentally” because John Goodman’s voodoo-talking, heroin-addicted jazzman belongs in a comic book, entertaining though he is.) For once, they neither mock nor torment the leading character – yet he’s perhaps the least likeable of any of their leads, a man who brings trouble on himself again and again.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), whose partner in a duo committed suicide, seems destined to drift. He has no fixed address, occasionally crashing on his sister’s couch but more frequently bumming room from married singers Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake).
He has a child he has never seen. Relationships with women come to abrupt and uncomfortable ends. After working in the Merchant Marine, he vows never to take a nonmusical job, though his first solo album (titled “Inside Llewyn Davis”) doesn’t sell, and no one wants him to try again.
Tragedy depicts a great man’s fall from a height; comedy depicts a buffoon’s scuffles in life’s lower echelons. “Inside Llewyn Davis” falls somewhere in between, because the title character has more talent than a mediocrity but will never be first-rate. When he meets savvy club owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) and sings his heart out in a brief audition, he won’t accept Grossman’s verdict: Davis is a natural-born backup artist.
The Coens can’t forego their usual bag of strangely mystical moments and private jokes. Multiple orange cats alter Davis’ journey, and he finds himself on a long car ride with that cane-wielding jazzman and a mumbling actor from a banned, semi-pornographic play (Garrett Hedlund).
They’ve cast Stark Sands, who won a Tony as a slain soldier in “Journey’s End,” as a folk singer serving cheerfully in the U.S. Army. Even Grossman’s name is a gag: The Coens come from Minnesota, and Bud Grossman was one of the Minnesota Vikings’ owners while they were growing up.
But when Davis tenderly sings “Shoals of Herring” for his paralyzed father, the scene has an emotional depth the Coens rarely provide (or want to provide). For all his self-destructive tendencies, we know him to be a decent man.
Fans of folk music will identify unnamed performers: The older woman strumming a dulcimer is meant to be Jean Ritchie; four Irish guys in white sweaters represent the Clancy Brothers. (There really was a folk couple called Jim and Jean, though the Coens have said they knew nothing about that duo.) When Grossman – who is based on folk impresario Bert Grossman – asks Davis to grow a goatee and join another man and woman, we’re supposed to know he’s putting together the trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
Davis himself stands in for Dave Van Ronk, who became a respected and influential folk singer but never a star. Van Ronk befriended Bob Dylan (who, like the Coens, grew up in Minnesota) when Dylan landed in the Village in 1961.
Toward the end of the film, as Davis is about to leave the folk club, we see a nasal-voiced troubador with a harmonica take the stage behind him. That’s when we realize his unhappy fate: Llewyn Davis will never be Bob Dylan, and he’s probably going to spend the rest of his life finding that out.
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