"Inside Llewyn Davis" takes place in winter 1961, just before Bob Dylan makes the scene. The scene is the Greenwich Village folk music universe, a few finite blocks of an island that, in the hands of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, looks and feels like a beautiful, long-ago smudge in motion.
Crashing here and there, on couches uptown and downtown, Llewyn has a guitar, a voice and some talent. Thanks to Oscar Isaac's extraordinarily subtle and shrewd performance, the surly protagonist of Joel and Ethan Coen also comes equipped with the kind of sardonic charisma that compensates for a lot, including his own defeatism.
Llewyn doesn't want to "sell out," though to pay for an abortion — Carey Mulligan plays the seething Jean, his sometime folkie lover — he cuts a quick-and-dirty Sputnik-era novelty record, "Please Mr. Kennedy," one of the film year's musical and cinematic highlights. His partners in the studio are Jean's husband, played by Justin Timberlake, and a self-styled cowboy played by Adam Driver. Here, behind the microphone, as in the film's other performance and club scenes, Llewyn morphs into his better self. "Inside Llewyn Davis" draws its sardonic comic mileage on presenting these and other heavenly musical sequences in contrast to all the aggravation, self-induced or otherwise, accumulating around Llewyn, across a busy, blurry week in his life.
As a fond imagining of a distinct locale at a specific cultural time, the film is remarkable. As much as they're besotted by the Village circa '61, the Coens are Midwesterners (they grew up in suburban Minneapolis), and in the Midwest road trip section of the movie, you know from whence they came. Pinning his hopes on an audition at Chicago's Gate of Horn nightclub, Llewyn has grabbed a ride out of Manhattan with a heroin-addicted jazzbo, played by John Goodman, and his sidekick (Garrett Hedlund). They stop at a Fred Harvey Oasis restaurant hanging over some nowhere section of interstate highway, in the middle of the night. Every detail in production designer Jess Gonchor's work is inspired — a little sad, a little eerie, completely attuned to a story that, at heart, is a lament for the man Llewyn will never become.
This being the Coens, the movie happens also to be funny about it. The real star of the film is the cat belonging to Llewyn's Columbia University academic pals, the Gorfeins, played with wide-eyed optimism by Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett. Llewyn, who locks himself out of the Gorfeins' apartment along with their cat, travels with the feline downtown by subway. The point-of-view shots of the cat watching the signage whiz by are things of casual genius. The cat runs away, eventually, and as much as it's about a particular personality type, and as much as it owes to Dave Von Ronk's Village memoir "The Mayor of MacDougal Street," "Inside Llewyn Davis" is about how one man keeps losing one cat.
Death is all over the story. Llewyn's merchant marine father is near the end. The climactic scene with his decrepit old man finds Llewyn managing to redeem himself in song, at least momentarily. Llewyn's former musical partner has recently committed suicide, leaving Llewyn to wonder if he has the stuff to be a solo act. F. Murray Abraham plays a fictional version of Bud Grossman, in the Chicago Gate of Horn scene, one of the film's best. This is Llewyn's chance, and when the verdict comes, it's the only one that makes sense for this film, this performer, this world.
Folk standards such "500 Miles," "The Death of Queen Anne" and "Dink's Song" infuse the movie, and as in the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" T Bone Burnett has done first-rate work supervising the musical landscape. The film, I think, falls just a tick or two below the Coens' best work, which for me lies inside "A Serious Man" and "Fargo." The script starts and finishes with an implicit question, one acknowledged by the Coens in the production notes. What would cause anyone to beat up a folk singer? This is how the movie begins, in an alley, behind a club. Something in the film's ending frustrates; it's meant as a melacholty fadeoout, but the real ending, I think, lies a little earlier, with Llewyn in the car, at night, wondering if he should take the Ohio turnoff in order to check up on a unread chapter in his sorry life.
Anyway. Some quibbles. But it's well worth seeing. Isaac isn't playing Bud Grossman's idea of a star, yet he may well become one thanks to "Inside Llewyn Davis."
"Inside Llewyn Davis" - 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language including some sexual references)
Running time: 1:45
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun