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Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis is a character study that may supply the tools, but requires you to do the digging. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer in 1961 New York, who in the film’s opening captivatingly sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at a cafe he’s played countless times before. He makes a gentle joke at the end, telling the audience, “It’s never new and it never gets old—-it’s a folk song.”
At this point, Llewyn seems like a good guy and an old, sensitive soul. His talent as both a vocalist and an acoustic strummer is undeniable. (Impressively, it’s all Isaac you’re hearing during the performances.) Turns out, though, that Llewyn is kind of a dick. He used to have a partner, Mike, but is now striking out on his own. Here, “striking out” is the key phrase—-Llewyn couch-surfs because he can’t afford a home; he takes his useless agent’s coat because he’s too broke for luxuries like warm clothes during a bleak East Side winter. He walks around Greenwich Village hunched over with his guitar and sometimes a cat, a runaway he couldn’t catch before its absent owners’ door locked.
Any mention of Mike flares Llewyn’s temper, and not until about halfway through the film do we find out why. Throughout, however, there’s counterintuitive abrasiveness within the singer’s corner of the New York folk scene. A friend and onetime lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan, with long, heavily banged hippie hair), may angelically perform “Five Hundred Miles” with her boyfriend and partner, Jim (Justin Timberlake), but offstage her favorite words are “asshole” and “shit,” at least while speaking to Llewyn. He, meanwhile, is both passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive to nearly everyone, particularly when he’s cajoled into performing a song at a stiff, pasted-smiles dinner party he was strong-armed to join.
Written by the Coens, Llewyn Davis is episodic, sometimes puzzling, and ultimately slight. There is a seemingly important story development that is mentioned and dropped, and unexplained quirky characters (John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund) who exist solely for the sake of quirk. Mulligan, though she has a lovely voice, disappears for much of the film and could have been played by a lesser name just as effectively. Isaac, however, offers what’s likely a star-making performance, both musically and as an actor capable of emotional nuance. Llewyn pounds the pavement but slowly accepts that his dream may never happen. His vulnerability onstage morphs into anger off it.
The most enjoyable part of the film is a scene in which Llewyn is called to help record a novelty song (one you won’t be able to get out of your head) with Jim and a deep-voiced oddball. It’s fun, it’s uplifting, you feel the joy that playing music brings them. And cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel does a fantastic job capturing the opposite feeling outside of that session—-this is not Times Square New York, but a muted, downbeat city of browns and grays. The main character’s story is as melancholy as his repertoire. Yet you keep waiting for Inside Llewyn Davis to go electric.