Rated: R for language including some sexual references. Reviewed by: Jim Release date: December 6, 2013 Released by: CBS Films
Joel and Ethan Coen turn less mainstream than their previous film and stellar remake, True Grit, in a way that proves to be a rather intriguingly melancholic character study about a musician in a crossroads of his career on the way to an audition. Even if it's ripe with odious, misanthropic folks and not very emotionally accessible even for a discerning audience.
Inside Llewyn (spoken 'loo-win') Davis stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman and is less of a flaky adventurous fable like the siblings hit film set in the Depression-era Deep South, O Brother, Where Art Thou. For some, though, this very deliberate protean fare may an odd, revelatory quality about it.
A new wave of folk music from an evocative setting in Greenwich Village, circa a wintry 1961 in the West Village's smoky 'Gaslight Poetry Cafe' where the titular character, well-played by singer-actor Isaac (of The Bourne Legacy and Drive) helps to propel a winding, if hardly momentous odyssey. A hirsute Llewyn is a quick-witted cynical fellow, lauded, but in a funk professionally needing a place to crash. That trouble-making character trait can help balance out what seems to be arbitrary events and characters coming and going.
The Coens with their very respected producing partner Scott Rudin know how to get into the struggles of the mundane whether in films like Fargo or A Serious Man as the scrounging, parched for money protagonist has thoughts of rejoining the Merchant Marines while headed out to the Windy City. A guy who needs a winter jacket happens to pick up a pet cat during this kind of transitory existence as the felines make quite an impression. That said orange feline of a Columbia professor friend is a welcome running joke that offers the best (and worst) of Llewyn when it comes to providing the necessity to peel back more behind the guilt and desperation.
Llewyn is in that precarious position that could put him on a path of success if his milieu would be less taxing, not abetted by those not so bright people he's attached himself to along the way (many of whom on whose couches he crashes).
There's trouble in his relations with husband/wife musical partners Jim (Timberlake of Friends with Benefits, Runner Runner) and Jean (Mulligan of The Great Gatsby opposite Leonardo DiCaprio) especially in his closeness with the latter after an acrimonious Jean reveals she's having his baby.
It's clear though that Isaac inspires great affection for a character not seemingly that lovable with quite a natural gift for his craft (listen to the controlled passion offered in "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" and "The Death of Queen Jane") as well as getting to the crux of a matter with derisive glee.
The colorful cast besides the rather profane Mulligan include a Goodman (who was Big Dan, like a Cyclops in The Coen's retelling of Homer's 'Odyssey') as a Loquacious, if rude raconteur and Garrett Hedlund as a more taciturn monosyllabic wacky guy along the road with Llewyn. Clean-cut crooning is limned to a risible extent by Stark Sands as a young soldier; the title comes into play through Llewyn's meeting with a famous club owner, talent manager, a firm Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham).
Having an estimable T Bone Burnett produce the soundtrack filled with lively quintessential folk music and the way Isaac immerses himself without pretense or affectation into the Coen anti-hero loser role (besides having actual performers like Timberlake as well as Isaac and Adam Driver) allows for the appreciation of the creativity and the development of a reemerging form in authentic behind-the-scenes fashion.
Getting a glimpse later of an iconic artist in the genre and using a circular plot device involving alley hostility to offer more clarity to a hardly ready-made portrait also can offer continuity even if Llewyn's irrefutable talents don't belie his personal shortcomings during this struggling week-in-the-life. As O Brother displayed quite a harmony through its bluegrass bluesy riffs, Inside Llewyn Davis is attuned to the kind of songs in the exploratory, folksy key of life to wisely poke through in its unique make-or-break way.
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