"Inside Llewyn Davis" Review: Craig's First Take

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A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961
5

Much like the is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-true-story style of “Fargo”, the Coen brothers again leave us guessing with “Inside Llewyn Davis”, and again the answer is it’s not and it is. Llewyn is an original creation but some of the pieces have been taken from the life of Greenwich Village folk singer Dave Van Ronk (whose memoir “The Mayor of McDougal Street”, a few of his songs, and parts of his life were used in the crafting of the film).

This is a personal and, at times, unbearably devastating piece of work about being a slave to a dream and the misery it can cause. The Coens get a near flawless performance from Oscar Isaac, one of those guys you know you’ve seen before in other films, it’s just hard to remember his characters. He need not worry here; Llewyn and the Coen’s usual array of eccentric supporting players stay etched in your memory in what I think is the year’s most accomplished piece of work.

Davis (Isaac) was once part of a folk duo which ended tragically and now is trying to make it as a solo artist in the 60’s. But aside from gigs at the Gaslight café and doing background vocals for his friend Jim’s (Justin Timberlake) goofy songs (“Please, Mr. Kennedy”), he’s really just prone to sleeping on the couches of friends. This includes Jim and his girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan), the later of whom he has mistakenly impregnated. Mulligan is very funny here as this harsh woman who seems to think the real mistake was letting this loser in her bed in the first place.

The Coens are quick to point out that when you’re trying to win a dream, nothing else matters, doing anything else just seems like existing. It’s a brass ring that has little to do with money and almost everything to do with respect. It can also be a personal hell, the cold, drab streets Llewyn walks down and the people who just don’t get it representing all that life has to offer. Isaac is flawlessly rootable. You can feel the pain and longing on his exhausted, dispirited face as he continually tries in vain to overcome each disappointment. Watching him put all this personal pain in Llewyn’s musical performances is a beautiful, soulful thing.

Credit the great T-Bone Burnett (who the Coens last worked with on “Oh Brother Where Art Thou”) and Marcus Mumford (of “Mumford and Sons”) for the music too, from “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” , “The Death of Queen Jane”, an Irish quartet singing “The Auld Triangle”, and the song I haven’t been able to get out of my head for weeks “Fare Thee Well”. What’s interesting is that these songs seem to go back through history, recorded by several different artists in different ways. It brings to mind a Llewyn quote in the beginning of the film, “If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

Eccentric characters abound again in this Coens production, from Llewyn’s over-the-hill agent (and equally old secretary), to a house guest of Jim and Jean’s who’s much of a low-key doofus, and the great John Goodman as a constantly high, overly critical jazz musician who gets into a carpooling situation with Llewyn.

But it’s sad Llewyn, a hapless individual with nothing in his corner but hope (and a neighbor’s cat who comes in and out of the film and starts to feel like an albatross as things proceed further), who is the most richly realized. He stands in contrast to a world where the priority is less about making art and more about doing what sells. The Coen’s movie is funny and dramatic, but at its center, Llewyn remains its compelling martyr.