It’s the winter of 1961 in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, and hipsters at The Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street prefer lighthearted faux-folk fluff instead of dark and depressing folk music, which makes it a hard life for folk musician Llewyn Davis.
Llewyn is constantly broke, makes a habit of sleeping on acquaintances’ couches, spends countless hours searching for gigs, and when he manages to score one, his pay is insufficient. In other words, nothing seems to work out for Llewyn, who’s at the center of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest character study, Inside Llewyn Davis. The Oscar winners’ music-brimming drama-comedy, loosely based on the memoir of American folksinger Dave Van Ronk, follows a week in the life of the protagonist, portrayed by captivating newcomer Oscar Isaac.
The Coens’ ode to folk music relates thematically to their 2009 critical success A Serious Man and musically to 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? In A Serious Man, Larry Gopnik is the protagonist whose life is in a major downward spiral. The premise of Inside Llewyn Davis is similar. Larry, however, is a devout Jew who immediately seeks answers within his religion for his constant pyramid of problems. Llewyn, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be seeking answers. He wants to be a successful folk musician but isn’t motivated to make it happen; he just wants it to happen, but he really can’t say why.
After giving a haunting performance of Van Ronk’s “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” at The Gaslight, Llewyn is unjustifiably beaten up in an alley by an unknown figure, sending him on a weeklong journey, which feels like months. Llewyn, whose previous and somewhat successful music duo ended after his partner unexpectedly committed suicide, has been sleeping on the sofa of the Gorfeins, an Upper West Side Jewish bohemian couple. Played with hilarity by Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett, the Gorfeins are academics who have been generous to Llewyn. The morning after his beat down, Llewyn leaves and inadvertently takes the house cat with him after it escapes, a gag throughout the film.
He then crashes at the apartment of husband-wife music act Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). Mulligan is stellar as the feisty Jean, who lectures Llewyn about never taking responsibility for his actions, noting specifically how she may be pregnant with his child from their earlier affair because he didn’t take enough precaution. Llewyn listens to her anger with a “what do you want me do about it?” attitude and offers to pay for her abortion, act he’s become all too familiar with.
In the New York City folk scene, we also meet Al Cody (Adam Driver), an amateur Jewish vocalist who’s looked for a way out of his identity via his cowboy hat and his name change. Al is a prime example of the fluff that fans and music executives prefer during this time, as he, Jim Mulligan and the reluctant Llewyn perform the hilariously awful, original song “Please Mr. Kennedy.”
Obviously, the music in this movie can’t be ignored, including Isaac’s covers of the “Green, Green Rocky Road,” “The Death of Queen Jane,” and multiple covers of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song).” Mulligan, Timberlake and Broadway actor Stark Sands also give a fine performance of the soft sung “Five Hundred Miles,” Peter, Paul and Mary style.
The bulk of the film, though, is a road trip to Chicago that Llewyn decides to pursue, as things aren’t working out in the city. He, his guitar and the cutest feline ever take us along for the melancholy ride, providing an environment similar to last year’s On The Road. Llewyn first hitchhikes with the funny yet extremely unpleasant jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his mostly silent chauffeur, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).
During the trip, things keep getting worse for our wannabe folk superstar. When he finally makes it to Chicago with the help of multiple other strangers, music manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), based on Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, simply tells him that although he’s a decent singer, he’s not what audiences want.
Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t have much of a plot. Isaac’s portrayal, along with the performances by the supporting cast, is so enthralling that this really doesn’t matter. The craziest part is how Llewyn is extremely frustrating and should be an unlikable character, yet many viewers can end up relating to him in one way or another.
The film is also inherently Jewish through its side characters. In addition to Al Cody and the Gorfeins, we also meet a peculiar newlywed couple (Alex Karpovsky and Helen Hong) who’ve combined their Jewish and Chinese last names to give their new baby the surname Greenfung. Llewyn’s irate agent and his cheeky secretary are equally memorable.
You would think the point of the film is for Llewyn to make it big. But by the end, we realize his journey is about simply making it. On his way back to New York, he has opportunities to retrieve his lost cat and visit his Minnesota-based old girlfriend. But Llewyn, unlike a typical crowd-pleasing protagonist, isn’t one to take advantage of opportunities that could improve his life. In a memorable scene, his sister tells him to join the Merchant Marine so he can live a stable life. He rejects her advice, because he doesn’t want to “just exist.” Unknown to him, he has been just existing this whole time.
Verdict: Must see. Isaac’s Oscar-worthy performance alone is worth the price of a movie ticket.
Check out a trailer below
Inside Llewyn Davis is rated R for language and sexual references. Opens in limited release Dec. 6 and Dec. 20 nationwide.