Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis
Carey Mulligan as Jean
Justin Timberlake a Jim
Ethan Phillips as Mitch Gorfein
Robin Bartlett as Lillian Gorfein
Max Casella as Pappi Corsicato
Jerry Grayson as Mel Novikoff
Jeanine Serralles as Joy
Adam Driver as Al Cody
Stark Sands as Troy Nelson
John Goodman as Roland Turner
Garrett Hedlund as Johnny Five
Alex Karpovsky as Marty Green
Helen Hong as Janet Fung
F. Murray Abraham as Bud Grossman
Stan Carp as Hugh Davis
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
After his singing partner dies, folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) tries to go it alone, performing the odd gig in Greenwich Village, while crashing on the couches of anyone who will have him. When he finds out that Jean (Carey Mulligan), the wife of a friend of his, is pregnant with his child, he decides to leave town to try to get an agent in Chicago, ending up on a road trip with a disagreeable snob named Roland Turner (John Goodman).
At times, Inside Llewyn Davis” feels like somewhat of an anomaly within the Coen Brothers’ recent filmography. Knowing that it’s based within the New York City folk music scene of the ’60s makes you expect something akin to O Brother Where Art Thou,” because like that film, it’s heavily reliant on its soundtrack to work, the musical numbers doing wonders to lighten what’s generally a darker film for the filmmaking duo.
It opens on Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis on stage performing a song, just him and his guitar, and it’s a stark and absolutely riveting way to introduce the character. After an altercation in an alley, we then cut to him waking up on a friend’s couch in a clearly upper class apartment, but as he leaves, their cat gets out as the door locks, leaving Llewyn to have to carry the cat around until he can return him. He turns to his friends Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake), a folksinging duo living in the Village. As it turns out, Jean also slept with Llewyn and has found out that she’s pregnant with his child. While Llewyn is trying to deal with that problem, he also has to figure out how to make money because he’s broke and when his agent won’t help, he decides to take a road trip to Chicago to meet with a different agent.
From the first moment we meet Llewyn, it’s obvious this is a movie that will allow Oscar Isaac, an underrated actor who has mostly been relegated to smaller supporting roles, to shine, appearing in every single frame of the film. It’s not that he makes Llewyn Davis particularly likable – he’s more of a bitter sad sack who goes through life getting his friends angry at him while at the same time chasing a cat around town. It’s hard to feel sympathy for Llewyn’s situation, being homeless and clearly a starving artist, but he also has a substance abuse problem that leads to him snapping at those around him who clearly love him.
Davis comes off like a saint compared to John Goodman’s Roland Turner, a crotchety jazz musician who offers to give Llewyn a drive to Chicago, although they immediately start butting heads once they hit the road as Turner waxes philosophic on everything wrong about the world. This shifts the movie’s second act in another direction, mostly taking place in the car or various restaurants and rest stops as Roland and Llewyn try each other’s patience and Roland’s assistant Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) barely says a word.
As with many of the Coens’ masterpieces, this film includes so many great supporting characters it’s almost a shame that few of them appear for more than a few scenes, particularly Carey Mulligan as Llewyn’s – well, it’s hard to call her a friend” because she spends most of their scenes together cursing and yelling at him. Mulligan pulls off the ’60s Bohemian look quite perfectly, looking so sultry and sexy it’s not surprising how many men show up at her shows, just hoping to sleep with her.
Justin Timberlake only appears in three scenes, but one of the more memorable ones has him in the studio performing a song called Please, Mr. Kennedy” along with Llewyn and a hilariously awkward Adam Driver as another folk singer named Al Cody. Not since Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler sang You Got the Touch” in PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights” has a musical performance generated such a smile. Again, Driver’s character is so intriguing you want to see more of him and it’s disappointing when he never returns.
I honestly don’t know enough about the ’60s folk scene to know how many, if any, of the characters were based on real folk singers, though a brief appearance by what is clearly Bob Dylan does take you out of the movie a bit. There’s also a bit of a fake-out when we revisit the scene that opened the movie later on and it’s made clearer what we saw taking place in the film’s opening. It’s not a particularly satisfying way to end the film.
The results are closer to “A Serious Man” than some of the Coens’ more mainstream offerings, but it’s played far more serious with less of the quirky humor they’re known for. Either that or it’s just an even darker humor than we’re used to seeing from them.
The Bottom Line:
Easily one of the Coen Brothers’ more enigmatic offerings, “Inside Llewyn Davis” may take a few viewings to be appreciated as much as some of their classics, but it gets major points for the authentic folk music and an unforgettable committed performance by Oscar Isaac.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 6, and expands wider on December 20.